RACP cowardly flip-flop


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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