Lecretia Seales did not have right to die, High Court rules
Lecretia Seales learned on her death bed that she had been denied her dying wish.
Her grieving husband, Matt Vickers, has revealed her deep hurt and disappointment when he told her on Tuesday evening that Justice David Collins had decided it was against the law for her to be allowed a doctor's help to die at a time of her own choosing.
"Even though she couldn't speak, she was able to share her feelings through her expression. There was no mistaking her response. She was hurt and disappointed. She fixed me with a stare with her good eye as if to say "Isn't this my body? My life?" Her breath slowed and she turned her head away. Her reaction utterly broke my heart," Vickers said at a media conference in Wellington on Friday afternoon.
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Seales, a Wellington lawyer who died of a brain tumour early on Friday at age 42, had asked the court to clarify the law so she had the option of having a doctor's help to die if her suffering became intolerable. Collins ruled that only Parliament could make a law change to allow such a step to legally occur.
Vickers stoically maintained his composure for most of his reading of a prepared statement at the media conference on Friday about the family's shocked reaction to Collins' judgement. His legal team, Andrew Butler and Catherine Marks, also attended the conference, along with Seales' former colleague and close friend, Cate Brett.
He said the family was given an interim results judgement on the case on Tuesday so that Seales, whose health was rapidly deteriorating, could be aware of the outcome and know whether she could lawfully have a doctor to help her to die.
Collins' full judgment from the High Court at Wellington was made public on Friday afternoon and explained Seales' doctor risked prosecution for murder or manslaughter if she administered a fatal drug to Seales, intending to kill her. It also said Seales' doctor risked prosecution for assisting suicide if she provided Seales with a fatal drug, intending Seales to take that drug and if Seales died as a consequence.
"We are dismayed by Justice Collins' judgement. In some ways, I am relieved that Lecretia was unconscious and unresponsive when we received it," Vickers said.
"It just so happens that sometimes, when that suffering is so great, the only release from that suffering is death. That is not murder. That is not suicide. That is mercy."
He said Collins' interpretation of the law meant he could not find aid in dying was available to Seales or was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.
The judgment had "starkly highlighted that the status quo is not ideal" and that people were at risk of intolerable suffering and of ending their lives earlier than they would otherwise.
"Justice Collins was clear that it is for Parliament to address these issues," Vickers said.
He implored Prime Minister John Key to initiate the debate, saying Key publicly stated two weeks ago that he welcomed such debate.
"This debate needs to happen now. Prime Minister, I urge you to give the public what they want and start the debate. I urge you to follow my wife's example and to be a courageous leader. I urge you to lead on this issue. It is long overdue. Now is the time. Let us give Lecretia her legacy."
It was understood Seales' death did not rule out the possibility of an appeal over Collins' ruling. Her funeral would be held on Wednesday in Wellington.
Seales, 42, had begun the court proceedings in March when it was expected she might live between three and 18 months. By the time the case was heard in late May, her outlook was worse.
She had not given up on life but she had been told she might have just a few weeks, and at most a very few months, left.
Seales was in the High Court at Wellington twice during the three-day hearing, on the first and last days. She appeared in a wheelchair, eyes mostly closed, with a family member by her side.
Justice Collins said in his judgement that Seales' attendance at the court during the hearing "illustrated her courage and commitment at a time when she knew she may only have a few weeks to live".
Both times, she heard her lawyer, Andrew Butler, speak. He said the case was only about her and her circumstances and what her options were.
Her claim was to clarify the law and how Crimes Act sections, including on homicide and suicide, should be read in light of the Bill of Rights, Butler said.
It was said the guarantee not to be deprived of life was infringed if Seales could not get aid in dying, as this would force her to prematurely take her own life while she was still able to do so without help.
She also had the right not to be subject to cruel, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment and it was said that would be infringed if her choices were to take her own life or face the prospect of intolerable suffering.
Her lawyer said aid in dying was either not banned under the Crimes Act for a person in Seales' position or, if it was banned, that was inconsistent with her rights.
Her general practitioner, whose name was suppressed, was willing to help her die if it was legal.
The Attorney-General was named as defendant to the claim. His lawyer, Solicitor-General Mike Heron, QC, said the law was clear that aid in dying was not available, regardless of the Bill of Rights.
Her options also included quality palliative care to avoid or lessen pain and suffering, Heron told the court.
He said if Seales' claim was accepted it would have implications beyond her case.
Three groups were allowed to make submissions on the case, even though they were not parties.
The Care Alliance, a group opposed to euthanasia, echoed the Attorney-General's submissions that if Seales won it would impact others. The alliance said it would amount to euthanasia on demand for all terminally ill, mentally competent adults, and potentially put at risk the lives of vulnerable people, such as the disabled, elderly and frail, and the mentally ill.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society said Seales should win. Giving her a prescription for medication that would end her suffering would be a continuation of her medical care.
The Human Rights Commission was neutral on Seales' ultimate question but said if the law was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights then the court should say so.
Already this year courts in Canada and South Africa have said doctors can help terminally ill people die. Other countries have laws that specifically allow doctors to give patients aid to die, either by giving access to lethal medication or administering lethal medication.