Imagine this: you are visiting from interstate on other matters. Your “colleagues” (you have never met these people but it could be said that you share similar professional interests) hear of your visit and invite you to give up your time for free to present a breakfast talk to a closed meeting at their place of work. They say they have a “poor understanding” of your area of work and would like to learn more. Can you help them out?

You think this is a reasonable and a not uncommon situation, so you agree. You get up early, give what you think is an interesting presentation, engage in an active Q&A session, get thanked by the organiser for making the effort and contributing your time and goodwill to foster greater understanding and intellectual debate within their department. You think that is that.

Only later that same day, the head of the department decides to complain to the national regulatory agency about what you said, claiming you are a risk to life and that you deserve to lose your professional accreditation.

This is the way that Dr Mark Schutze of the department of pain management at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth behaved towards me recently, calling me “a risk to his patients” and saying I did “not deserve registration as a medical practitioner”. He claimed I had promoted “instructions on how to suicide, and instructions on how to kill people” in a complaint to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. Schutze used the hospital as his address, and it remains unclear as to whether he is representing the CGH in this matter or it is his personal professional complaint he has made.

In any event, Schutze’s complaint now forms the basis of a “notification” with AHPRA, which in turn will now decide if it will launch an investigation into my medical registration.

Schutze thinks I don’t deserve to call myself a doctor. The question now is: will the Australian Medical Board agree?

Under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (WA) Act 2010, medical registration is provided under section 3(2)(a) “for the protection of the public by ensuring that only health practitioners who are suitably trained and qualified to practise in a competent and ethical manner are registered”.

Under section 52(1)(c) the person must be “suitable” to hold general registration in the health profession. Section 55 defines “unsuitability” as a person with an impairment, criminal history, lack of competency in speaking English, past experience in practising medicine competently or safely or, under section 55(1)(h)(i), not a fit and proper person.

It could be argued that as this is the third complaint to be made against me in three years, I should be used to the charade. In some ways I am. One of the other current complaints that has gone to the investigation stage with AHPRA in South Australia concerns my fit and proper character. Like the complaint made by Schutze, the other complaint was made by a person with views that don’t accord with my own. I’ve never been a member of the church-sponsored, pro-life sector. Never will be.

Needless to say I believe strongly in choice, and while I appreciate that others may not, I’d be the last person to try and ram my views down their throats. We can all agree to disagree. Naively, perhaps, on February 25 at 7.30am at CGH I thought that was where we’d leave discussion also. Apparently not, but why not?

Like many who speak regularly about the work that they do, I had assumed that a closed breakfast meeting to doctors and nurses at CGH would be governed by Chatham House Rules.  These rules are designed to increase openness of discussion and to allow those involved to express and discuss controversial opinions and arguments without suffering the risk of dismissal from their jobs.

Since my presentation to the hospital staff and since Schutze’s vexatious complaint to AHPRA, the convener of the breakfast presentations has stated overtly that Chatham House Rules apply. But then he’s had to do that as also since my presentation he is unsurprisingly short of speakers.

While I don’t practise medicine in any technical sense — my medical insurer has made a point that anything to do with the words “voluntary euthanasia” or “Exit International” is non-medical and hence beyond coverage — and as the founder of my own non-profit, I’m not “employed” by anyone. However, I still wouldn’t want to find myself relinquishing my medical registration simply because someone doesn’t agree with my ideas.

I can fully understand why other invited speakers wouldn’t want to take this risk either. Unlike me, they need their registration to keep their jobs at the hospital.

Speaking of past seminars on controversial topics, the CGH convener has acknowledged that while “I have often released disclaimers protecting the hospital, ourselves, etc. However, I failed to protect the speakers, which is what I now regret”. Indeed you should. Hence his newfound enthusiasm for those attending to agree in writing to Chatham House Rules in an attendance book at the door or be denied entry.

While I applaud CGH’s belated efforts to embrace freedom of speech in their professional development activities — if that is what its breakfast series of talks are — for me this courtesy is too little, too late.

Once again, I am forced to take time out from Exit International’s important work to turn my mind to defending myself and my ideas. I don’t really care that Mark Schutze thinks that voluntary euthanasia and other methods of self-deliverance are not needed because palliative care has all the answers, but I do care that he thinks he is un-categorically right and the rest of us are wrong. You know, Mark, we aren’t wrong. We are just think differently to you.

As the first man to use the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act back in 1996, Bob Dent, once said in an open letter to politicians:

“If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don’t use it, but don’t deny me the right to use it if and when I want to.”

The same applies to Schutze. Let’s hope AHPRA agree.

*Dr Philip Nitschke, a long-time euthanasia rights campaigner, is the author of the banned Peaceful Pill Handbook

Peter Fray

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