Few would have envied the decision Justice David Collins has had to make on whether New Zealand's Bill of Rights Act can sanction euthanasia. The subject is not one that anybody finds pleasant, including those, perhaps an increasing number, who say they believe it is at least preferable to a lingering, painful and possibly undignified death.

That was the view of Lecretia Seales, who applied to the High Court for the right to die with a doctor's assistance if her terminal brain tumour became much worse.

Ms Seales, who died of her illness hours after receiving the decision on Thursday evening, had made it clear to the court last week that she was not then wishing to die.

She was seeking the right to do so at some future point if her life became unbearable. It is important that be noted because it illustrates one of the problems for voluntary euthanasia. If it is to be allowed, the decision must be made when the person is still capable of making it, to avoid any question they may be vulnerable to external pressure.

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Yet the prospect of the decision to die being made by people who are not yet suffering unbearably, and may never be, makes it ethically more difficult for doctors to do what they ask, and more difficult for society to sanction such a decision in law.

The sanctity of life lies at the heart of public policy in a civilised society that considers it has no right to take a life even as retribution for taking a life.

Societies such as ours put public money and effort into suicide prevention programmes. What happens to that message, particularly for the vulnerable young, if the law says medically assisted death is a respectable escape for the terminally ill?

How many of the elderly in care would conclude that since they really are a burden to society they ought to take the new option the law has provided?

They should not be given any reason to think their condition is without dignity and their life without value. Some of the passionate opponents of euthanasia are health practitioners specialising in end-of-life care.

Theirs is a new and developing specialty that aims to ease, comfort and dignify people in their approach to death. Euthanasia is a denial of these possibilities and they know it would be in many cases tragically unnecessary.

Despite these arguments, several countries have decided it is the right of a person terminally ill to choose an early death and it is lawful for doctors to bring it about. Switzerland, Holland and Belgium have decided so, as have the states of Oregon and Washington.

Most recently, the Canadian Supreme Court has unanimously found its criminal code prohibition to be a breach of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ms Seales asked Justice Collins to similarly rule that the Crimes Act prohibitions on assisting suicide and consent to be killed are contrary to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. He has ruled against her, finding no breach of our statutory human rights. This is unlikely to be the end of the subject.

Ms Seales, a lawyer herself, devoted the last days of her life to a right she believed she ought to have had, and many agreed with her. She has inspired an important discussion.