Cancer-struck lawyer Lecretia Seales' fight for right to euthanasia

Lecretia Seales has an inoperable brain tumour and wants the option of asking a doctor to help her die.
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Lecretia Seales has an inoperable brain tumour and wants the option of asking a doctor to help her die.

A prominent Wellington lawyer is looking to set a legal precedent by asking the High Court to allow her to die on her own terms.

Lecretia Seales, 41, a public law specialist, is dying of an inoperable brain tumour.

She filed a claim in the High Court on Friday petitioning to uphold her right to die at the time of her choosing.

It seeks to make sure her GP would not face charges under the Crimes Act if or when she helped Seales to die.

Her lawyers will argue that it is a breach of fundamental human rights to refuse to allow someone to help a person die, or hasten their death, even with their consent.

Seales, who has worked for law firm Chen Palmer, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and as a leading law reformer, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in 2011.

Seales had leading roles in her work at the Law Commission, the Listener reported. 

Her cancer was diagnosed in 2011. The tumour had already colonised a quarter of her brain, and she was given just weeks to live.

She underwent surgery to "prune" the tumour, and also has radiating therapy to control its growth.

Surgery bought her several more years but a recent MRI showed the tumour was advancing, and she has been told she may have only months to live.

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Paralysis is gradually depriving her of the use of the left side of her body.

Seales said she fully supported the need for legal protections for the vulnerable, so they were not influenced to take their lives.

But preventing her, and others in her situation, from exercising their fundamental human rights was draconian.

"I am the one who has been inflicted with this disease, no-one else. It is my life that has been cut short.

"So who else but me should have the authority to decide if and when the disease and its effects are so intolerable that I would prefer to die?

"I am not saying that I will necessarily choose to exercise this right, and nor for one moment am I suggesting others in my position should be asked to make such a choice.

"I am simply saying that I, Lecretia Seales, a human being confronted with the inescapable reality of my death, and the prospect of great suffering - for me and those who love me - must have the right to determine when I have reached the end of the road.

"This right belongs to me and none other."

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Despite her prognosis, she is committed to her fight to see the right to die enshrined in "carefully crafted law". 

A Horizon poll in 2012 found 63 per cent of New Zealanders supported a law chance to allow mentally competent adults to receive medical assistance to die if they have a terminal illness or an irreversible physical or mental condition that renders their life unbearable. 

The historic case follows a Canadian Supreme Court decision in February in which nine judges unanimously found that Canada's prohibition against physician-assisted dying infringes fundamental human rights.

A spokesman for pro-life group Voice for Life NZ said the case was worrying as it could open the door to legalising assisted suicide.

"It is sad that she doesn't feel she has enough medical care and compassion to help her through at this time," the spokesman said.

Assisted suicide went against the Hippocratic oath of all doctors, and the idea of having the option available was against any country's moral law.

The New Zealand Medical Association Code of Ethics is opposed to euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide, but states: "In such inevitable terminal situations, treatment applied with the primary aim of relieving patient distress is ethically acceptable, even when it may have the secondary effect of shortening life."

A Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners spokeswoman said the organisation did not have a position on the subject because there was no consensus among its members. 

Seales' statement of claim argues that, under section 9 of the Bill of Rights Act, she has a right "not to be subjected to cruel, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment".

It argues that, if she is not able to lawfully access the assistance of a doctor to help her die, should she chose to do so, then she will face a "cruel choice between taking her own life through potentially violent, painful and ineffective means, or suffering intolerably from a potentially slow, painful and undignified death".

The relief she is seeking from the court would apply only to her own circumstances, based on the medical evidence that she has a "grievous and irremediable illness that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to her in the circumstances of her condition".

Seales' legal team will be looking to have the case heard as soon as possible, in view of her declining health.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand on March 3, Seales said despite being a private person, she was speaking out for "the greater good". 

"The fact I'm a lawyer, and I have a terminal illness, puts me in a prime position to be a leader on the subject."

Although she had no desire to end her life immediately, she worried about what would happen when her health inevitably declined. 

"I've seen older relatives really suffer with cancers at the end stages and I don't want that for me. I just don't want to lose my mind."

If she had her way, the law would revolve around patients' choice. "The patient has the right to decide when the length of their life becomes less important than the equality of their life."

Fear of unintended consequences have previously hampered discussions, but she said that these fears were unfounded: "The evidence from all the overseas jurisdictions that have implemented forms of assisted dying is that it doesn't lead to devaluing to life, it doesn't lead to old people feeling forced to die... You'd have to have a system which was closely monitored, but you could do it, and I think be satisfied it was working as intended and that there aren't unintended consequences."

Seales' battle is reminiscent of terminally-ill woman Brittany Maynard, who ended her own life at home in Portland, in the US state of Oregon, on November 1 2014. 

The 29-year-old made plans to die on her own terms, in the process becoming the public face of the right-to-die movement. 

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 - The Dominion Post

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