'A cry for respect . . . and justice'

By Matt Vickers

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of assisted dying campaigner Lecretia Seales. Her husband Matt Vickers writes about her legacy and life without her.
Lecretia Seales' case brought the issue of assisted dying into the public eye. Photo / Supplied
Lecretia Seales' case brought the issue of assisted dying into the public eye. Photo / Supplied

Tomorrow it will be a year since my wife Lecretia Seales died. A lot has happened in a year.

A few months ago I moved away from Wellington, taking a work transfer from my incredibly supportive employer, Xero, and I am now living in New York. Wellington became a very difficult place to be after Lecretia died. I left in an attempt to cast off my grief, like Lecretia wanted to cast off her illness. But like Lecretia's deathbed fantasy to get in the car and drive away from her affliction, I could not leave my grief behind me in Wellington with all the things that triggered memories of her. It's followed me here, to New York City, and every day I carry it with me. She would have loved it here and I find myself constantly asking what she would have said or done if she had been here to enjoy it with me.

In August, Lecretia's family will be launching the Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture in Law Reform, in Wellington. Sir Geoffrey Palmer will deliver the inaugural lecture. We aim to establish an annual lecture in perpetuity, on a range of topics related to how this country is run and the machinery of its democracy.

I can think of no better way to honour my wife, who loved law reform and worked tirelessly throughout her life to support better legislation for all Kiwis. My book, Lecretia's Choice, will be published on the same date, and I hope that it will help people understand who Lecretia was, why she pursued a law change, and why her way at looking at life, and death, deserves as much respect as anyone else's.

This year a number of jurisdictions around the world have moved forward in allowing assisted dying.

The Canadian Parliament, like the Canadian Supreme Court, has grappled with the arguments against assisted dying of the sort put forward by the Care Alliance in New Zealand and found them insubstantial and without merit. The Canadian assisted dying bill was passed in their House of Commons this week, with 58 per cent of their MPs voting in favour. The bill is now before the Canadian Senate to be passed into law. It is likely it will be delayed in the Senate: not because the bill goes too far, but because some senators feel that the bill does not go far enough. Some Canadian doctors are already helping patients under the aegis of the Supreme Court ruling, and terminally ill patients are right now applying for and being granted court exemptions so they might be assisted to die. In the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, assisted dying legislation is already in effect.

Matt Vickers, husband of Lecretia Seales, hopes his book will help people understand her view. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Matt Vickers, husband of Lecretia Seales, hopes his book will help people understand her view. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Unless you get your news from biased pro-life sources like Lifesite or Independent Catholic News or tabloids like The Daily Mail, most Canadians are hailing this as a victory for patient rights and a compassionate step forward. The law change is backed by the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Pharmacists Association. Terminally ill Canadians are experiencing huge relief at knowing they will have control over the ends of their lives, and Canadians in general are pleased that the choice will be available to them, should they find themselves in circumstances intolerable to them.

In the United States, California's assisted dying legislation comes into effect this Thursday, after the passionate and committed campaign of the late Brittany Maynard and her husband Dan Diaz.

California joins Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont in allowing assisted dying. New York may be the next state to allow it, with a bill passing its Assembly Health Committee earlier this month.

Closer to home, the Victorian Parliament in Australia is due to deliver a report on assisted dying this coming week. Through the work of many, including Australian broadcaster Andrew Denton, whose podcast Better Off Dead was one of the top-rated podcasts in Australia earlier this year, many expect the inquiry to recommend a law change in the state of Victoria. Tellingly, a change is supported by the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation and former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Denton's podcasts are well worth listening to. He visited Belgium, Holland and Oregon in a journalistic capacity to dispassionately investigate the claims of opponents that the laws there are somehow misguided or abused. He found precisely the opposite. He acknowledges that there were one or two tough cases that were examined in depth by the media, and these cases were complex and challenging, cutting to the very heart of what it means to suffer, to live, and to die, but in the end these cases were not unjustifiable or in conflict with a patient's wishes. And there were, of course, thousands of other terminally ill or irremediably suffering people accessing the laws and being assisted to die in uncontroversial circumstances. Denton visits New Zealand for a series of talks about his experiences in a couple of weeks - his first is in Wellington on June 19.

Lecretia Seales with her husband Matt Vickers in 2011 pre surgery, taken a few days after she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Photo / Supplied
Lecretia Seales with her husband Matt Vickers in 2011 pre surgery, taken a few days after she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Photo / Supplied

Although my wife's court case brought the issue of assisted dying into the public eye in this country and helped provoke a select committee inquiry, we still await a change in the law in New Zealand. But a lot of progress has been made.

The world is slowly but surely moving forward, and as with abortion, gay marriage, homosexual law reform, women's votes, and the emancipation of slaves, the sky is not falling. It is simply becoming a more compassionate, tolerant, and sensible place. It breaks my heart that Lecretia will not be here to see it change for the better.

The Health Select Committee has received more than 15,000 submissions on the issue of assisted dying, more than almost any other issue explored in Parliament with the notable exception of gay marriage, which received 21,000. Whether those submissions turn out to be for or against change, the sheer number of them demands attention, respect, and intellectual rigour from the committee. This is an issue that New Zealanders clearly care deeply about, and it deserves proper parliamentary scrutiny. The committee members are obliged to be thorough and to test the evidence.They cannot coast their way through this, or file a report based on hearsay, assumptions, or unsubstantiated speculation.

The chair of the Health Select Committee, Simon O'Connor, has been consistent in his views that he opposes assisted dying for his own philosophical reasons. It's his right to do so, and there are others on the committee who do not agree with him. Despite his opposition, I credit O'Connor with more humility than to expect all New Zealanders, with their many and varied beliefs, to be forced to live and die according to his personal philosophy, no matter how firmly he holds it.

For you, I wish the best of health, but should that fail you, then I wish at least for you to have the choice my wife was denied.
Matt Vickers

We live in a secular society, and the freedom that O'Connor enjoys to have his beliefs and to live and die according to them must also given to those that hold beliefs different from his.

As the submissions will no doubt reveal, even amongst his own faith, there is no consensus of opinion.

New Zealand's Human Rights Commission has made a submission to the committee declaring this to be a human rights issue, and has proposed a path to legislation.

Being unable to access assisted dying - being forced to suffer against your will before you die, even if palliative care can do little for you - is a limitation of your rights as a New Zealander. It is up to the committee to prove that that limitation of rights is justifiable in our modern society.

Canada, and more and more US States are declaring that it isn't, and they are changing their laws to respect the rights of patients, and to empower them with the right to choose not to suffer unnecessarily if they do not wish to.

As far as I know, the Health Select Committee is still processing the submissions they have received from New Zealanders, and is yet to ask anyone to appear before the committee to deliver an oral submission. Given the lack of updates so far, it is very possible the inquiry will extend into 2017. In any case, I hope for a positive result, not only for Lecretia, but for all of us. Without that, New Zealanders will not be able to access the same freedom to choose that Canadians and a steadily increasing number of Americans can.

Lecretia Seales was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011. Photo / Supplied
Lecretia Seales was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011. Photo / Supplied

Although there's been much progress in the year since Lecretia's death, I anticipate that there is much more in the year to come. Without change, I believe we'll see more and more stories like Lecretia's, like John Pollock's, like David Stephens', like Helen Kelly's, and other terminally ill New Zealanders, caught up in a cruel choice between dying too soon or dying badly, and who are forced to go public to push for respect for their choices. Yes, these stories are a cry for help - but too often they're dismissed as a cry for sympathy or attention - when actually they're a cry for respect, autonomy and justice. We must listen, and our politicians must act.

I think New Zealanders have the compassion to want laws that are more respectful of the autonomy of those who are dying. Should I ever find myself with the terrible misfortune of being terminally ill, I hope that I will at least be able to thank my wife for her struggle to give me and every other New Zealander a choice, at a time when few other choices remain.

For you, I wish the best of health, but should that fail you, then I wish at least for you to have the choice my wife was denied.

Lecretia Seales

• Lecretia Seales was a New Zealand lawyer.

• She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011. Her treatment included surgery, chemotherapy and radio therapy.

• In early 2015 she launched legal action in the High Court to challenge for her right to die with assistance of her GP.

• Lecretia passed away from her illness on June 5, 2015, the day after her family received a High Court ruling rejecting her bid.

• In December, Lecretia was named the New Zealand Herald's 2015 New Zealander of the year.

• A Parliamentary inquiry into euthanasia has drawn more than 19,000 submissions. Parliament's health committee is expected to start hearing oral submissions in the next month.

- NZ Herald

Lecretia's Choice, by Matt Vickers, will be published on August 29 by Text Publishing. The inaugural Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture in Law Reform will be held in Wellington on the same date. Details are available at http://lecretia.org/memorial-lecture/

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