John Sargeant: Seales channels Rosa Parks

OPINION: 

On 2 March 1955, a 15-year-old black American schoolgirl by the name of Claudette Colvin boarded a bus from her school in Montgomery, Alabama. Two stops later four white men boarded the bus. As was the law, the bus driver told Colvin and three other black girls to stand so the white men could sit down.

Her friends complied but Colvin refused so the police were called, Colvin still refused to move. She was beaten by a police officer and then she was handcuffed and literally dragged to jail where she was arrested for disorderly conduct, violating the segregation ordinance and assault and battery.

Not many people really cared, after all it was Southern Alabama in the mid '50s.

On December 1, 1955, just nine months later in the same town and on the same bus route Rosa Parks did the same thing, she refused to give up her seat for a white man.

That action by Parks sparked a civil rights action which eventually led to the US Supreme Court declaring that segregated seating on buses was unconstitutional. Parks went on to become known as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement".

So what was the difference between Colvin and Parks? After all they were exactly the same cases under exactly the same circumstances?

The black leaders of the time judged Colvin would not stand the scrutiny of the public, she would not capture their hearts. There was something about her people would not latch on to. Parks on the other hand was older and from a different background that the public would be far more interested in so Parks became the focus of their struggle.

Jump ahead 60 years and it's just about the same story for the cases of Californian Britany Maynard and New Zealander Lecretia Seales.

Maynard, a phycologist, educator and humanitarian was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an unmanageable and terminal brain cancer. She went through brain surgery which was unsuccessful so she moved to Oregon where euthanasia is legal. It was there she decided she would die on 1 November so her last full day alive would be with her husband on his birthday.

Six months later, New Zealander Lecretia Seales an intelligent and articulate woman, a lawyer and also a voluntary euthanasia advocate was also diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer and also faced a certain and lingering death.

Maynard's condition was well reported in New Zealand but as with Colvin, it attracted little attention as Kiwi's didn't relate to her.

But Seales on the other hand did capture our hearts. The only difference is Seales was here in New Zealand where there are no laws to help those with terminal illnesses choose when to die with help from the medical profession. Assisted suicide, death with dignity, call it what you will but Seales quickly became the face of the right-to-die movement in New Zealand as Parks had become the face of civil the rights movement in the US.

It's because we can all relate to Seales - she could have been our sister, our daughter or a next door neighbour. Seales was a fun loving Kiwi who knew the law. That's why she took her case for the right to die under her own terms to the High Court challenging the Bill of Rights Act. The subsequent decision of Justice Collins to deny her that right was a mistake for which Seales suffered both physically and emotionally.

There is a chequered history of attempted legislation from Labour's Maryan Street and Iain Lees-Galloway to introduce bills over recent years.

Lees-Galloway's was recently withdrawn from the ballot by Labour but he rightly says that because of the Seales case the time is now right to bring it back.  He says that the bravery of Seales has given MPs the confidence to address the right-to-die issue in Parliament as there is a public appetite to deal with the issue.

So much so that Lees-Galloway will table a petition to Parliament later this month to lead a full inquiry by a select committee to consider legalising euthanasia.

There is no doubt that because of Seales, there is far stronger public interest in being able to die how we want, with who we want and more importantly when we want.

It makes sense. If an illness is terminal and all interventions have failed, then it is a person's right to die as they wish.

I know there are hospices, good people and pills to make terminal patients comfortable but in the end, only the person whose life it is, has the right to decide for themselves.

Nobody else can make that decision and it is wrong to let them linger on if they do not wish it.  

 - Stuff

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