Lecretia Seales - New Zealand lawyer and physician-assisted dying advocate
Lecretia Anne Seales (4 April 1973 – 5 June 2015) was a New Zealand lawyer and physician-assisted dying advocate.
In 2011 Seales was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She received brain surgery, chemotherapy and radio therapy but her condition continued to deteriorate. In 2015 she put a case to the High Court to challenge New Zealand law for her right to die with the assistance of her GP, asking for a declaration that her GP would not risk conviction. Her claim had two parts. In the first instance she wanted the Court to declare that her doctor would not be convicted of murder or aiding suicide by assisting her to die given the nature of her illness and prognosis. Failing that sought a declaration from the Court that the "Crimes Act" is inconsistent with her rights and fundamental freedoms, namely the right not to be deprived of life and the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel treatment, as contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights. While the alternative declaration would not have meant that a doctor could lawfully provide aid in dying to a competent, terminally ill patient, it would have demonstrated that the law, as it stands is unjust and potentially put pressure on parliament to change the law.
In her statement of claim, Seales explained that:
"I have accepted my terminal illness and manage it in hugely good spirits considering that it’s robbing me of a full life. I can deal with that, and deal with the fact that I am going to die, but I can’t deal with the thought that I may have to suffer in a way that is unbearable and mortifying for me.
"I have lived my life as a fiercely independent and active person. I have always been very intellectually engaged with the world and my work. For me a slow and undignified death that does not reflect the life that I have led would be a terrible way for my good life to have to end."I want to be able to die with a sense of who I am and with a dignity and independence that represents the way I have always lived my life. I desperately want to be respected in my wish not to have to suffer unnecessarily at the end. I really want to be able to say goodbye well."
Justice Collins declined to grant any of the declarations sought:
"Although Ms Seales has not obtained the outcomes she sought, she has selflessly provided a forum to clarify important aspects of New Zealand law. The complex legal, philosophical, moral and clinical issues raised by Ms Seales’ proceedings can only be addressed by Parliament passing legislation to amend the effect of the Crimes Act. I appreciate Parliament has shown little desire to engage in these issues. The three private members bills that have attempted to address the broad issues raised by Ms Seales’ proceeding gained little legislative traction. However, the fact that Parliament has not been willing to address the issues raised by Ms Seales’ proceeding does not provide me with a licence to depart from the constitutional role of Judges in New Zealand."
The case led to a number of important factual conclusions:
- That palliative care does not completely prevent suffering in all cases
- That there is evidence of terminally people killing themselves before they deteriorate past being able to
- That allowing physician assisted suicide would not necessarily lead to the victimisation of vulnerable people
- That there was no medical consensus against assisted dying
Additionally, Justice Collins expressed his sympathy for Seales' plight stating, "I fully acknowledge that the consequences of the law against assisting suicide as it currently stands are extremely distressing for Ms Seales and that she is suffering because that law does not accommodate her right to dignity and personal autonomy."
Opponents of her case raised concerns of a slippery slope that would put other lives at risk.[However, such concerns were not put before the Court. Opponents did argue that assisted dying might put vulnerable lives at risk, but Justice Collins rejected the veracity of this argument, stating: "It is important to ensure that medical judgements are not based upon assumptions as to vulnerability. To do otherwise would devalue respect for the principle of individual autonomy."
On 5 June 2015 she died, aged 42, the day after her family received the judge's decision.
In response to Seales, Act Party leader David Seymour has submitted a member's bill calling for a debate on euthanasia. MPs have expressed their support for a move to legalise assisted suicide, including Labour leader Andrew Little.