Australia

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The Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) invited reasoned and measured assisted-dying doctor, Dr Rodney Syme, to address its annual conference in Cairns, and then unceremoniously pulled the plug. Cowardice? Flip-flop? You bet.

In February this year, Dr Syme says he was approached by a member of the the RACP 2015 Congress committe to attend and deliver a paper to the annual conference, in Cairns 24-27 May. The title of his paper was "Caring for those at the end of their journey." Dr Syme accepted the invitation and spent considerable time and effort preparing and polishing his paper. He was quite clear that a polemic on assisted dying was not suitable for this occasion, and wrote a paper discussing the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of palliative care: in other words, as is well-established, that despite the excellent quality of pallaitive care in Australia, it simply can't relieve the intolerable suffering of all dying patients. In any case, it would be unrealistic to expect palliative care to be perfect: we live in an imperfect world.

Dr Syme has been in the news recently in regard to providing medication and advice to Mr Ray Godbold, who is dying of advanced gatroesophageal cancer. The medication and advice gives Mr Godbold control over the end of his life.

Then, the RACP dropped a bombshell on 8th May. It unilaterally cancelled Dr Syme's invitation. It claimed to have done so in response to complaints by palliative care specialists.

Given that the RACP congress is titled "breaking boundaries, creating connections", and promises delegates a "diverse program" that facilitates "interaction and debate", this is an appalling development.

Dr Syme responded that:

  1. I personally feel deeply insulted.
  2. I regard the behaviour of those at the highest level of the college, an academic institution of high repute, as being less than expected of an academic body.
  3. For the college to surrender to “significant disquiet” from an unknown and undisclosed number of members in this way is cowardly.
  4. The Lead Fellow who invited me was incensed at the College’s reaction.
  5. The outcome is an act of academic censorship of the worst kind – they did not know the content of my address.
  6. It illustrates the extreme depths to which those opposed to open debate on an important medical and social issue will descend to stifle debate.”

I'm not surprised by that view. If palliative care specialists (and/or others) do not believe Dr Syme's points to be valid or defensible, then let him put them, and then rebut them. To reneg on the original invitation because someone might disagree is academic censorship.

That the RACP would stoop to such insulting flip-flop is not a great endorsement of their stature as an esteemed medical body.  It's time we had open and frank debate about end-of-life matters. Of course there will be disagreements—that is the point of debate.

The RACP owes a full explanation to both Dr Syme and to medical colleagues throughout Australia as to how many people demanded Dr Syme's invitation be withdrawn, and precisely on what basis, not merely that "they might not have liked what Dr Syme may  have to say."

Mr Marshall Perron, former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, wrote the following to the RACP:

As a supposedly professional body the [RACP] organisation should encourage open and honest discussion on issues of great interest to our ageing citizens.  Instead you demonstrate a cowardly approach of which you should be ashamed.

 

 


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Dying Victorian man Peter Short, and his wife Elizabeth talk about coping with Peter's terminal illness, and make a plea to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to meet with them to discuss responsible assisted dying law reform. Peter has since died.

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The Hon. Bob Such's Ending Life With Dignity Bill 2013, before the South Australian Parliament, contains a strong compliment of safeguards, as Neil Francis explains in this video. The refusal of life-saving treatment, to which Australians are entitled but with the same direct and foreseeable consequence as doctor-assisted dying requests, have practically none of these safeguards, yet there has been NO avalanche of inappropriate persuasion to refuse life-saving medical treatment, as the so-called "slippery slope" hypothesis would have us believe.

This is the third of three videos sent to South Australian MPs in 2013.

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Opponents of assisted dying law reform often invoke fictional slippery slopes as objections to law reform. In this video, Neil Francis gives three examples of supposed slippery slopes argued by opponents, explains why they are fictional, and shares the perspectives of several recognised experts from the USA state of Oregon about their Death With Dignity law which has been in effect since 1997. Three long-time Oregonian Death With Dignity Act opponents also admit there's no cause-and-effect relationship established between law reform and supposed slippery slopes.

This is the second of three videos sent to South Australian MPs in 2013.

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While good palliative care can help many dying patients and their families, the clear worldwide evidence is that even the best palliative care possible simply can't help alleviate intolerable suffering for some. This is not a criticism of palliative care. In these cases, the overwhelming majority of the public want law reform to allow the patient to request and receive assistance from their doctor to peacefully hasten their death.

This is the first of three videos sent to South Australian MPs in 2013.

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