The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) handed down an extraordinary (or extraordinarily ridiculous) judgment just before Christmas last year. It ruled that providing a patient with Nembutal – a lethal drug, illegal in Australia which, if ingested would kill a person in 20 minutes – is a form of “palliative care.”
Victoria’s Dr Rodney Syme has, for years, been giving Nembutal to patients with a terminal or degenerative illness. He estimates that he has provided the drug – which is illegal in Australia – to 170 people. He has previously said that he does not keep count of those to whom he has given the drug.
He has become increasingly brazen in his actions, admitting to providing the drug in interviews and even inviting media to film him handing drugs to patients.
Having been made aware by the general practitioner for a patient named *** that Dr Syme was intending on giving his patient Nembutal, the Medical Board of Australia imposed the following condition on Dr Syme’s license:
Dr Rodney Syme [MED0000944514] is not to engage in the provision of any form of medical care, or any professional conduct in his capacity as a medical practitioner that has the primary purpose of ending a person’s life. [Emphasis added.]
Dissatisfied with this condition, Dr Syme challenged it, and the result of VCAT’s decision was that this condition was removed from his license.
Not only is aiding or abetting a suicide a crime in Victoria, Dr Syme admitted in the VCAT hearing that it was “probably” illegal to give Nembutal to another person.
Of the approximate 170 people to whom he has provided the drug, Dr Syme estimates that 40% of them have taken the drug. In real numbers, this means 68 people are dead.
Dr Syme argued that it was an example of the “double effect.” And since the principle of the “double effect” was a product of Catholic moral theology, it is necessary to respond to this egregious misuse of it.
For those unfamiliar, according to the principle of the double effect, it is morally permissible to perform an act that has both a good and bad effect if:
- The act to be done must be good in itself or at least indifferent
- The good effect must not be obtained by means of the bad effect
- The bad effect must not be intended for itself, but only permitted
- There must be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the bad effect
It is often discussed in relation to the medical practice of giving a patient increasing doses of painkillers for the purposes of pain relief even if the provision of those painkillers might hasten death.
Dr Syme argues that he provides Nembutal to relieve the psychological suffering of his patients, which is made better by the ability to have “control” over their own deaths. The knowledge that they can take the drug is a way of healing psychological distress and it is healing of psychological distress – and not the death of the patient – which Dr Syme intends.
What is more staggering than the argument is that VCAT accepted it, ruling that Dr Syme’s conduct was indeed just another form of patient care; another example of the double effect.
But here’s the problem. Providing an illegal and deadly drug to a person fails the very first limb of the double effect. It is not a good or morally indifferent act. It is an evil act.
It is also disingenuous to say that the “bad effect” of the patient’s death is not intended, but only permitted. The sole reason that any psychological comfort is given to a patient is because they know that the drug they are given will cause death. If there was any circumstance under which the drug did not cause death, then the “intended” good effect of psychological calm would also not exist.
This is not analogous to pain relief. The painkillers could relieve pain without causing death; and their ability to cause death is not a necessary part of their utility in medical treatment.
This isn’t profound ethical thought which I am expressing, it is common sense. I know that, Dr Syme knows that and so does VCAT. But they are turning a blind eye to this in order to allow him to continue provision of the drug.
It’s the same thing that Victoria Police are doing. No one has ever been charged with importing Nembutal in Victoria and, even though Dr Syme penned an article admitting to providing the drug to patients, he was not even contacted by Victoria Police.
Laws which are not enforced are useless.
Is it any wonder that Victoria is now on the brink of legalising euthanasia? If they do allow it, the Parliament will only be formalising what the police and now VCAT have been allowing to happen anyway.
Monica Doumit, catholicTalk contributor