Wed, Oct 18, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Advocate Rodney Syme awaits Victorian vote on assisted dying

The vice president of Dying With Dignity Victoria has been campaigning for 30 years. Yesterday, debate began that might finally lead to legislation

By Melissa Davey and Gay Alcorn  /  The Guardian

Rodney Syme has been lobbying for voluntary assisted dying for more than three decades. Yesterday afternoon Victoria’s state parliament was to launch a debate on legislation that is the closest advocates, such as Syme, have come to seeing patients being granted the legal right to medically end their life.

“On the first day of the debate I’m going to play golf,” said Syme, a urologist. “Then I’ll come home and find out what has happened. You can’t get yourself too wound up in this, because whatever happens I’ll know that I’ve done my darndest for 30 years to advocate for change.”

However, the 82 year-old, the vice president of Dying With Dignity Victoria, said that if the legislation passes, he will be “pleased to see it over with.”

“It will help a very small group of people who need help and will allow people to have an open, honest talk about death to their doctor,” he said. “It will encourage dialogue about end-of-life care and improve the quality of palliative care, as has happened in other countries with assisted dying legislation.”

This is not a private member’s bill, as in attempts to pass similar legislation in other parts of Australia, but a law with government backing and the personal support of Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews. Politicians are to be given a conscience vote.

It is the lower house where the debate is likely to be most rigorous and where supporters have had to work the hardest to persuade politicians.

Dying With Dignity has been encouraging its members to contact their local MPs in recent weeks to get those who remain undecided over the line.

The group is more confident of upper house support, but Syme thinks the legislation will pass both chambers.

“In recent weeks, I think more and more MPs from around Victoria are coming out in support of the legislation, particularly younger MPs,” he said. “Now you never know what politicians will do with a conscience vote. Is it their own values and beliefs they will express, or the values and beliefs of their constituents, or the values of their leader? But I think if you look at the debate over the past couple of weeks there has been a momentum for change and I am just quietly confident that it will pass.”

In July, the assisted dying advocacy group Go Gentle Australia surveyed 500 Victorians and found that public approval for voluntary euthanasia laws was stronger than support for same-sex marriage or abortion rights. And 55 percent of those who identified as Coalition votes supported change.

Syme said momentum had grown to the point where he did not believe politicians could be justified in voting against change.

Syme became involved in the issue in 1972 when he treated a woman with incurable cancer of the spine.

Her nerve and bone pain was persistent and unbearable, and at the time there was no effective way to relieve her pain, he said.

Intolerable suffering began to weigh on his mind.

However, he did not come out publicly in support of voluntary assisted dying until 1987, when he wrote a letter to the Age in support of a medical colleague who believed laws were needed.

A journalist subsequently rang him to press him further.

“I was very naive with journalists back then and I waffled away, and just in the course of conversation indicated I’d helped a number of people at the end of their life with medication. The next thing I knew the front page of the Age on a Saturday morning was plastered with the headline: ‘Doctor helps people to die.’ I’d specifically given people medication they could use to end their life. So I was in the deep end then, and that was really when this all started,” he said.

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