2017 Australian Humanist of the Year
Dr. Rodney Syme
Dr Rodney Syme has been recognised as Australian Humanist of the Year for 2017 by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (Australian Humanists). Australian Humanists recognise Dr Syme’s sustained advocacy and well informed support for physician-assisted dying, despite being arrested and having a ban placed upon him by the Medical Board of Australia which was since overturned by a court ruling in December 2016.
“I am very humbled, yet excited and honoured to join the illustrious names associated with this award,” said Dr Syme. “Many, such as Bill Hayden, Eva Cox and Peter Cundall have been open supporters of assisted dying. Whilst I have known and worked closely with others to achieve Humanist ideals.”
Rodney Syme has been a prominent advocate for physician-assisted dying for more than twenty-five years. He was president of Dying With Dignity Victoria for ten years (1996-2007) and, since then, vice-president. He has worked tirelessly to educate the public about their rights under current laws at end of life, and towards achieving legislative change to permit voluntary assisted dying.
“Assisted dying is a Human Right and a Humanist ideal,” said Dr Syme. “This is essentially what is being honoured in the award.”
Dr Syme’s journey as an advocate for physician-assisted dying began in 1974, when he heard a woman with cancer of the spine screaming in pain from the hospital floor above. He was struck by the need to change his attitude to pain relief for terminally ill patients. As he expressed it:
That had the most profound effect on me. For the next 20 years after that, I thought very, very deeply. I studied the medical literature, the bioethical literature. And formulating my views, I began to make public statements. And as a consequence, complete strangers started to approach me.
Advancing age and his conscience prompted him to put himself on the line for others. Dr Syme has publicly stated that he has counselled well over 1500 people needing end-of-life care and has supplied about 100 of those with Nembutal, a drug normally used for sleeping problems or for euthanasing animals. He has been questioned by police and asked to supply information to the coroner on the reported deaths, complying on each occasion.
Scott Sharrad, President of the Council of Australian Humanists Societies said, “Dr Syme’s efforts to bring true choice to people facing incurable suffering and terminal illness away from the influence of religious dogma are important for Humanists to recognise.”
Mr Sharrad continued, “Dr Syme is more than worthy to join the long list of past recipients of Australian Humanist of the Year.” Past recipients include Lionel Murphy (Justice of the High Court of Australia and Attorney-General in the Whitlam government); journalist Phillip Adams; parliamentarians Lyn Allison, Anne Levy and Olive Zakharov; philosopher Peter Singer; and ophthalmologist Fred Hollows. The award has been presented every year since 1983 and was given in 2016 to Shakespearean actor and direct John Bell.