Ross Henderson: Choosing death or avoiding it

Lecretia Seales
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Lecretia Seales

OPINION: 

I've been thinking about a few contentious topics which have been in the news recently: the right to assisted suicide, in the wake of Lecretia Seales' tragic death and court case, and workplace Health & Safety.

It seems a little morbid to link the two, but I'm not the first to do so. And the comparison is thought-provoking. It comes down to death, and choice – and who has the power to make choices.

Lecretia Seales knew what choice she wanted to make. She was a senior Wellington lawyer who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011, and after four years of treatment had run out of options. She faced the prospect of a drawn-out decline – or taking her own life before she lost the physical and mental faculties to do it herself.

Like many people in her situation, she thought it would be preferable if a willing physician could assist her to commit suicide at a time of her choosing. But that's not possible in New Zealand. So she and her husband went to court to fight for her right to have her choices about her life respected.

Tragically, she passed away the very day that the courts ruled against her case.

Death with dignity, or assisted suicide, or voluntary euthanasia – the idea has a lot of names which have been in or out of favour at various times. This reflects just how long it's been an issue, and one that we get gradually more and more comfortable with every time there's another case like Ms Seales'. But it's fundamentally about the amount of control people have over their own lives.

It's impossible to discuss assisted suicide without mentioning the risks involved in the same breath. Of course any process which deals with health, psychology and mortality would need to have safeguards. Of course the risk of manipulation must be minimized.

But the difficulty of process design shouldn't mean people like Lecretia Seales have to suffer when there's no other way their story is going to end.

Yet this is an issue where there will probably be little political action. There's simply no will across our political parties to address the matter in a respectful, sensible way. A few brave MPs have tried to change the law – most recently Iain Lees-Galloway of the Labour Party – but with no luck.

Then there's health and safety in the workplace. It's also about choice and death, but in almost the opposite way. The person who may be injured or killed – the worker – is often not the person making the decisions. Here, the right in question is the right not to die – the right to go home safely to their family at the end of shift.

When we talk about health and safety at work these days the connection is immediately made to Pike River, where 29 men perished after their employer prioritised speed and money over health and safety. But New Zealand suffers the equivalent of one Pike River every year just in farming. Quarrying, which was excluded from the legislation which came out of the Pike River inquiry, has seen two workers killed this year – in fact if you take away the Pike 29, quarrying is more deadly than underground mining. Our forestry industry has only started to improve its horrific safety record after a huge campaign run by the Council of Trade Unions.

After Pike River, though, everyone understood things had to change in workplace health and safety. Unlike in the case of assisted suicide, there was no end of political will to do something. Even a National government which has stripped fundamental rights like guaranteed tea breaks from our employment law was prepared to fully implement the recommendations of the Pike River inquiry – even the ones about increasing worker participation and power.

Until now. Now factions within the National Party have decided to flex their muscles over exempting small businesses from the regulations – a change which would mean over half a million Kiwi workers weren't covered. And the Prime Minister backed down immediately. Now we'll have to wait at least another two months before the legislation progresses – and probably in a watered-down form.

So, two issues to do with death: one about choosing it, and one about avoiding it. Both about who should have the power in a situation and who makes decisions. And both languishing because our leaders won't stand up and do the right thing.

 - Stuff

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