Assisted suicide case a coin-toss – expert

  • 24/05/2015

Parliament's failure to debate previous attempts to legalise assisted suicide makes it more likely the courts will have to make a call on it, according to one law expert.

Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales, 42, wants doctors to be allowed to help terminally ill patients like her die, without facing criminal charges.

The Crimes Act states it's illegal to help a person commit suicide, but suicide itself is not defined.

"There's an argument that's been accepted overseas that [aiding a] dying and terminally ill and competent person [to take] their own life is not suicide," says Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis.

"There is a quite credible and quite strong argument that the law that stands today can be interpreted in a way that allows terminally ill and competent people to gain aid in dying."

Ms Seales was diagnosed with an untreatable brain tumour in 2011. She's now paralysed down the left-hand side of her body.

"I don't fear death. I fear what might happen to me in the lead-up to my death, but not dying itself," she told ABC in April.

"I would like to see a proper framework in place for enabling people who are terminal to seek assistance to die in a dignified manner and that would need to have safeguards around it."

Prof Geddis says whether the courts rule in her favour or not depends largely on whether the judge would feel comfortable tackling a social issue the Government has been too scared to look at.

"We have to recognise that would involve the court making something of a social policy judgement, and a court may be reluctant to do that."

Previous Bills presented to Parliament have failed to make it past the first reading.

"We haven't had a select committee look at this at a stage where the public can get in and have their say," says Prof Geddis.

"If Parliament had a good go at it and a really strong debate over it, I think there would be a stronger argument the court should keep out."

And even if the judge rules in her favour, that doesn't mean assisted dying would suddenly be legal.

"It would depend on the nature of the declaration the judge gives at the end," says Prof Geddis.

"The judge may give a wide declaration that could apply to a number of individuals immediately, or it may be a narrower declaration – something along the lines of Ms Seales in her situation, the law applies in this way. Even in that latter situation however, anyone who is like Ms Seales could then go back to court and ask for a similar declaration.

"But that would be terrible – we don't want people at the end of their life having to constantly go to court to ask what their legal rights are."

He sees Ms Seales' chances as "50-50" – her argument is "very strong", but it's hard to predict what a particular judge might think.

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source: newshub archive