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Better Off Dead

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#3 The 80-year-old outlaw

Listen to #3 The 80-year-old outlaw

According to Canadian anti-euthanasia campaigner Alex Schadenberg, Melbourne doctor Rodney Syme is a threat to society: a ‘cowboy’ and ‘the worst of the worst’.

Why? Because for over a decade now, Syme has been publicly assisting terminally and chronically ill patients to die – despite the threat of jail for doing so.

How did a respectable 80-year-old urologist come to be a law-breaking cowboy?

Photo of Melbourne urologist Rodney Syme

Melbourne urologist Rodney Syme — Photo: supplied

'I thought: what is ethical about me being able to end my own suffering but my patients have to go on?'

Rodney Syme
Photo of Sandra Morris and Albert Leonzini (credit: Emily Sexton)

Sandra Morris and Albert Leonzini, both featured in this episode — Photo: Emily Sexton

It began 40 years ago, with a patient of his who was dying of kidney cancer. Her name was Betty. Syme could hear her screams from the foyer of the hospital. He didn’t know how to help her – but his conscience was pricked.

Syme knew that, as a doctor, if he were in the same kind of pain, he could find drugs – or help from other doctors – that would mean he didn’t have to suffer like Betty.

He began to wonder: why should he have access to this help, but not his patients?

Over the last two decades, Rodney Syme estimates that he’s helped more than 100 people to die. Assisting a suicide carries a maximum five-year jail term in Victoria. But, despite publicly challenging the police to charge him, no charges have yet been laid.

In late 2015, on national television, Syme admitted that he had helped Point Lonsdale man Steve Guest to die.

He continues to provoke the law in the hope that a new and more compassionate one can be written: one that allows people with unbearable and untreatable suffering to request assistance to die.

Please note: this podcast is not about suicide. If you are interested in increasing your understanding of suicide and how to support someone experiencing suicidal ideation, visit the Conversations Matter or beyondblue websites.

If you (or someone you know) require immediate assistance, contact one of the following 24/7 crisis support services: Lifeline (13 11 14), Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), MensLine (1300 78 99 78), beyondblue (1300 22 4636), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or eheadspace (1800 650 890).

Hear more

Better Off Dead: Interview with Sandra Morris

Through Rodney Syme, Albert Leonzini – dying of motor neurone disease – has obtained the lethal, illegal drug Nembutal, which offers him the opportunity to be in control of how he dies. But for all the peace of mind it offers, it still takes great courage to decide to use it. Albert’s partner of 40 years, Sandra Morris, tells what happened next.

Know more

In this episode

  • Alex Schadenberg
  • Rodney Syme
  • Albert Leonzini
  • Sandra Morris
  • Catherine Glenn Foster

Our theme music was composed by Zig Zag Lane for Zapruder's Other Films, and edited by Jon Tjhia. Music used in this episode includes 'Says' (Nils Frahm), 'Abandon Window' (Jon Hopkins), 'You Know Me Well' (Sharon Van Etten), 'Remedios The Beauty' (Oren Ambarchi), 'Fall Out' (Mount Kimbie), 'Dissolved Girl' (Massive Attack), 'John My Beloved' (Sufjan Stevens) and 'Forty-Eight Angels' (Paul Kelly).

Your stories

If you're suffering, or someone you love has died badly – in a hospital, in palliative care, in a nursing home, or at home – add your voice and tell your story here.

Further information

Better Off Dead is produced by Thought Fox and the Wheeler Centre.

Executive producers Andrew Denton and Michael Williams. Producer and researcher Bronwen Reid. For Better Off Dead, the Wheeler Centre team includes Director Michael Williams, Head of Programming Emily Sexton, Projects Producer Amita Kirpalani and Digital Manager Jon Tjhia. Editing, sound design and mix on this episode is by Martin Peralta.

Thank you

Thank you to Paul Kelly and Sony ATV for the use of his song ‘Forty Eight Angels’.

The series

Subscribe in iTunes, or your favourite podcast app. #betteroffdeadpod

Better Off Dead is produced by Thought Fox in partnership with the Wheeler Centre. It is written and created by Andrew Denton for Thought Fox.


Portrait of Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton is widely recognised as one of Australian media's genuinely creative forces.


All messages as part of this discussion and any opinions, advice, statements, or other information contained in any messages or transmitted by any third party are the responsibility of the author of that message and not the Wheeler Centre.

Better Off Dead

Andrew Denton investigates the stories, moral arguments and individuals woven into discussions about why good people are dying bad deaths in Australia.