Lecretia Seales' challenge still unanswered

11:40 am on 25 December 2015

Lecretia Seales' family is among the many nationwide facing a first Christmas without a beloved family member.

But the Wellington lawyer, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011 and died in June, has left a lasting gift to the people of New Zealand who support the right to die; her legal action thrust the debate into the spotlight and MPs are considering the issue.

Lecretia Seales

Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales loved to dance, travel, cook, entertain and study languages. Photo: FACEBOOK

Ms Seales took legal action for the right to die with dignity in a case that played out as the curtain fell on her life. She died hours after Justice Collins ruled it was a debate that needed to be had by Parliament and not the courts.

Parliament has picked up on that challenge, with its Health Select Committee launching an inquiry in response to a petition calling for a law change to permit medically assisted dying in the event of terminal illness or other specific circumstances.

Ms Seales was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011. It left her paralysed down one side, and rapidly losing her sight by the time her case was heard in the High Court in Wellington from 25-27 May. Days later, she was fully paralysed.

Her oncologist said in May she likely had only weeks to live - a prediction proved correct with her death on 5 June, surrounded by husband Matt Vickers and parents Shirley and Larry Seales.

Lecretia Seales' husband Matt Vickers speaking at a news conference in Wellington on Friday.

Ms Seales' husband Matt Vickers at a news conference after her death. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said his friend and former colleague had managed to avoid that which she feared the most.

"The worst things that could have happened to her - to have a long lingering and terrible death - did not happen to her," he said.

Fear of suffering

Ms Seales had told RNZ she feared what would happen when she declined further, when she became incontinent and would have to rely on others to do everything for her.

"I have a fantastic life at the moment. I don't want to end it right now by any means but I do worry about what will happen when I decline.

"I guess it's fear of suffering, and 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 because it's been such an important part of my life.

"It's part of everyone's life but I've been lucky to have a good mind and fear of losing that is big."

Ms Seales' legal team had sought clarification in the High Court in Wellington on whether it would be an offence under the Crimes Act for her doctor to be able to help her die, and whether a ban on assisted dying contravened her human rights under the Bill of Rights Act.

But Justice Collins said such decisions were not for the court to make.

"I am unable to issue any of the declarations sought by Ms Seales," he said in his finding.

"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."

Justice Collins

Justice Collins was unable to rule on the questions Ms Seales most wanted answered. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Justice Collins said Ms Seales' doctor would have been at risk of being prosecuted for either murder or manslaughter if she administered a fatal drug to Ms Seales intending to kill her.

She would have been at risk of being charged with assisting suicide if she provided Ms Seales with a fatal drug, intending for Ms Seales to take that drug and if Ms Seales died as a consequence.

Determined woman who loved to bake

Ms Seales' lead lawyer Andrew Butler spoke repeatedly in court of her determination.

It was that determination which got her to court to hear him fight for her right to die on her terms in her final weeks.

The woman who loved to dance, travel, cook, bake and entertain, who studied Te Reo, German and Italian, sat in a wheelchair, eyes closed most of the time, and listened to the fight for her life.

It was, ultimately, a fight she lost on both counts but one which others may win because she started it.

* Formal submissions to the parliamentary inquiry close in February.

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