Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Lecretia Seales' husband makes emotional appeal to MPs about voluntary euthanasia

The husband of Lecretia Seales has made an emotional appeal to MPs to reform the law on voluntary euthanasia - saying fear and religious opposition should not deny others a choice.

Matt Vickers has travelled from his new home in New York and presented to Parliament's health committee this morning, in front of a large number of media and members of the public.

"Why do we accept that the laws as they are force people to suffer against their wishes," Vickers asked.

"I want to be crystal clear that Lecretia valued her life very much. She did not want to die...but she felt it was right for her to be able to choose the circumstances of her death.
"Assisted dying legislation is not a threat, but an opportunity."


A large number of submissions against changing the law were based on religious reasons, Vickers said, and that was not a good enough.

"We live in a country with a plurality of religious beliefs and I think assisted dying legislation is the only way to respect that plurality."

While a majority of submissions on voluntary euthanasia were from those opposed, Vickers said that was not a representation of wider society. Rather, it showed the depth of feeling on the issue.

Vickers urged members of the committee to examine the evidence on assisted dying in some US states and in European countries. Oregon's experience proved there was no "slippery slope", he said.

"In most cases it is impossible to justify the status quo," he said.

"Why do we prohibit assisted dying when we know, both from [Lecretia's court case] and now illustrated by examples in some of the submissions you have received, that between 5-8 per cent of all recorded suicides are ill New Zealanders who might have lived longer had assisted dying laws been in place.

"Why do we accept that the laws as they are force people to suffer against their wishes, when we know that palliative care can not help all people in all cases."

"In most cases it is impossible to justify the status quo."
Matt Vickers

Vickers has also written a book about his late wife, Lecretia's Choice - A Story of Life, Death and the Law, which will be launched at Parliament on Monday in an event hosted by National MP Nikki Kaye.

Matt Vickers, husband of euthanasia campaigner Lucretia Seales, during his presentation at the health select committee at Parliament. Photo/ Mark Mitchell
Matt Vickers, husband of euthanasia campaigner Lucretia Seales, during his presentation at the health select committee at Parliament. Photo/ Mark Mitchell


It will be combined with the inaugural Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture in Law Reform, which will be delivered by former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC.

The issue of voluntary euthanasia was thrust back into the spotlight by Seales. The Wellington lawyer, dying of brain cancer, asked the High Court to give her the legal right for a doctor to help end her life.

On June 5 last year, soon after being told that her court bid was unsuccessful, Seales died of her illness, at the age of 42. A judge ruled that only Parliament could make a law change allowing that legal right.

The following month, Vickers was among supporters who presented a petition to Parliament, signed by former Labour MP Maryan Street and 8974 others, asking for its health select committee to fully investigate public attitudes to medically assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or terminal illness.

The committee agreed to do so, and more than 19,400 submissions flooded in from people on both sides of the debate.

It is now hearing from submitters in person, and committee members will travel around the country as part of this process.

Parliament's health committee is considering a petition from Maryan Street. Photo/ Greg Bowker
Parliament's health committee is considering a petition from Maryan Street. Photo/ Greg Bowker

Once that is done, it can make non-binding recommendations, including that the Government consider legislation.

Voluntary euthanasia advocates are not confident of such a recommendation, with some questioning whether National MP Simon O'Connor - a Catholic strongly opposed to voluntary euthanasia - should be chairing the inquiry.

The best hope for a law change is if a member's bill by Act leader David Seymour is drawn from the ballot. He has expressed confidence that it would pass a first reading in a conscience vote.

Following Vickers' submission, Carole Sweney, secretary of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of NZ, said voluntary euthanasia should not be limited to those who are terminally ill.

Others who suffer badly through illness such as motor neurone disease should not denied the choice that only they could make, Sweney said.

Dr Jack Havill, president of the society, encouraged committee members to visit overseas jurisdictions that had allowed assisted dying.

He said it was not right to confuse suicide and assisted dying, Havill said.
He directly asked National MP and committee chair Simon O'Connor to stop using the term assisted suicide.

Dr Amanda Landers, chair of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine, said the assertion that palliative care does not work made no sense to her.

"Palliative care is not a pill...it is an approach. It's someone asking you what is important to you, how you want your life to be now and to the end."

Landers, a palliative care doctor and specialist, said she had personally seen the fear in people's eyes fade as they come to terms with impending death. That could happen after long chats with palliative care staff, Landers said.

"The evidence shows that people who engage in palliative care early not only live better, they live longer."
Amanda Landers

She acknowledged that some people "die terribly". Medicine does not always know how to change approach and allow a natural death, Landers said.

"It's about acknowledging that death is normal...allowing nature to take its course...fear of the unknown is what people grapple with...people worry for their spouses, their children, their friends.

"The evidence shows that people who engage in palliative care early not only live better, they live longer.

"Do we want to be a country that cares, or not? For every person who is strong and capable who wants the choice, there are 100 people who will feel alone, lonely and a burden."

Green MP Kevin Hague asked why people should be denied a choice to die with assistance.

Landers said often "people don't know their choices". She had personally had lots of patients ask for help to die, and "almost everybody changes their mind in my experience".

"But the person who doesn't, shouldn't have that option?" Hague asked.
"No, they shouldn't," Landers replied.

Landers questioned how it would be decided who was suffering enough to be eligible for assisted dying.

"Sixty per cent of New Zealanders had chronic pain...I assume that is suffering. I have had a hip operation, I'm suffering from chronic pain right now."

National MP Jacqui Dean said there was a difference between pain from her dodgy knee and "someone crying out with pain in a hospital bed".

Landers said she did not see such situations as a palliative doctor.

"I don't see people crying out with pain in beds...I wish I could take you on one of my trips. It is not like that. And that is why it is so important you hear from us."

Prime Minister John Key has said he supports the legalisation of euthanasia in some circumstances, and previously voted in favour of former NZ First MP Peter Brown's 2003 Death with Dignity Bill, which was defeated in a conscience vote 60-58 in its first reading.

Despite that, National will not introduce legislation. Many of its MPs, including Finance Minister Bill English, are strongly opposed.

Labour also has no plans to act on the issue. Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway dropped a voluntary euthanasia bill in December 2014 at the request of leader Andrew Little, who said it was "about choosing the controversies that are best for us at this point in time".

Lees-Galloway took over the bill from former Street when she was not re-elected.

- NZ Herald

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