Lecretia Seales: Assisted suicide ban 'breaches Bill of Rights'

  • 24/05/2015

The inability to allow a terminally-ill woman's assisted suicide is sacrificing her dignity  in order to "perversely affirm" life, her lawyer says.

The precedent-setting case about assisted suicide has begun in the Wellington High Court today over the right for lawyer Lecretia Seales to die.

The 42-year-old, who was most recently a policy advisor at the Law Commission, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in 2011 which left her paralysed on the left side of her body and has continued to deteriorate.

Her condition means she is expected to die within months, if not weeks.

The public gallery and the jury box were packed with family and supporters for the start of the hearing, which is set down for three days before Justice David Collins.

Ms Seales watched some of today's proceedings in court from her wheelchair.

She wants to change the section of the Crimes Act which says it is illegal to aid or abet suicide, which has a maximum term of 14 years' imprisonment.

Ms Seales' case revolves around whether it is lawful for her GP, who has name suppression, to help her die, while the Crown says it is clear there is a total ban.

However, Ms Seales' legal team say a complete ban on assisted suicide is a breach of the Bill of Rights.

One of her legal team, Chris Curran, argued the ban in the Crimes Act is inconsistent to the New Zealand Bill of Rights which champions human dignity and value.

All humans have an inherent value and autonomy and shouldn't be treated as a means to an end, he says.

He says the law currently treats Ms Seales "as an instrument of unrelated policy goals".

"Lecretia's life is threatened with curtailment perversely to affirm life. It's treating her as a means, not as an ends.

"She wants to decide when she can endure no more and end life on her own terms. To deny that is to deny her choice and human agency."

Palliative care won't help Seales

Earlier today, expert evidence read to the court said palliative care for Ms Seales is not guaranteed to ease or control her suffering before she dies.

Her lawyer, Andrew Butler, says the case is not anti-palliative care, but rather is an argument that it is "not an antidote to all forms of suffering".

Her rights under the Bill of Rights give her the ability to refuse medical treatment, which includes palliative care.

Even with palliative care, there is no guarantee it will stop her suffering, Australian palliative care expert Michael Ashby says in a statement read by Mr Butler.

In some cases, sedation was the only way to help control pain, but was not something Ms Seales wanted given her independent character.

In her affidavit, she said it would be a relief if she knew she could have control over how she died, rather than putting her husband and family through the pain of watching her die slowly.

"If I knew I was able to have some control at the final stages of my life, the relief would be extraordinary."

Earlier, Mr Butler described Ms Seales' love of life and someone who was determined from a young age to be a lawyer.

"Lecretia is a person who has always enjoyed the company of others and giving and being of service to others. [She] had a keen sense of justice and wanting to make the world a better place," Mr Butler said.

She also loved cooking, baking, travelling and dancing and also studied a number of languages including Spanish, German, Italian and Te Reo Maori.

In opening the civil case, Mr Butler painted Justice Collins and the court a picture about who Ms Seales is.

After studying to be a lawyer at Victoria University in Wellington, she got a job at law firm Kensington Swan before leaving to travel and work in London. She returned to Wellington in 2002 where she started work at Chen Palmer, before finding her place at the Law Commission.

She met her husband Matt while out on Courtenay Pl in 2003.

Mr Butler says since her diagnosis in 2011, Ms Seales has stayed upbeat about life.

"She has nonetheless remained incredibly positive and lives her life to the fullest extent. She has continued to travel and entertain; she has been determined to live life on her terms."

In her affidavit, Ms Seales' says she just wants the option to allow her GP to end her life if her condition becomes too difficult to live with.

"I don't know how my death will be, but given my current conditions and likely further symptoms it will be a difficult, slow and unpleasant one. I want to be able to ask a doctor to help me end my life peacefully if and when it gets to a point where my life is no longer bearable.

"It is possible the way my illness progresses that I am able to manage with what help is available and I won't need to seek the help of a physician to die, but I want to have a choice to be able to say 'enough is enough' if I can no longer bear the suffering and indignity."

She wants to die peacefully surrounded by her husband and family.   

Mr Butler says Ms Seales' doctor did not believe she was depressed or in low mood, but rather wanted to enjoy life as much as she could, given her condition.

It is a doctor's "stock and trade" to make judgements around informed consent and to consult and discuss options fully with patients, Mr Butler says.

Ms Seales says wanting her GP to help end her life if she chose to was her idea and not influenced or coerced by anyone – including her husband, family or her doctor. Her doctor hadn't raised the idea with her.

"I trust myself to make a sound decision about my life."

She did not believe she needed to experience what her life would be like if her condition got worse to know she'd made the right choice.

Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Care Alliance which is against legalising euthanasia, and the Human Rights Commission all argued to be part of the case, and won the right to give submissions.

The hearing continues.

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source: newshub archive