Lecretia Seales inspires Geoffrey Palmer's proposed law change for assisted dying

By Audrey Young

Lecretia Seales with her husband Matt Vickers on their wedding day in 2006. Vickers' book "Lecretia's Choice" (Text Publishing) was launched at Parliament tonight. Photo Nicola Topping
Lecretia Seales with her husband Matt Vickers on their wedding day in 2006. Vickers' book "Lecretia's Choice" (Text Publishing) was launched at Parliament tonight. Photo Nicola Topping

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has come up with a proposed law change that would allow doctors in limited situations to help terminally ill patients to die.

It would require seven conditions to be met and would involve the Family Court as a means of verifying the conditions.

"My own view is that it is desirable to proceed with caution in this area and not to go further than the circumstances warrant."

He set out his proposal at Parliament tonight in a lecture in memory of Lecretia Seales whose husband, Matt Vickers, launched a book "Lecretia's Choice."

Palmer once worked with former Tauranga woman Lecretia Seales who died of brain cancer last year. She took an unsuccessful case to the High Court in a bid to let her doctors to help her to die.

Palmer said his proposed law change was confined to the situation in which she found herself.

"The law needs to be changed to allow her wish to be granted," he said.

It was not a step that lessened the sanctity to be accorded to life.

"Death is inevitable. By making this suggested exception to the general principle we would be respecting life. And such a measure would not be a slippery slope toward some ambiguous twilight zone."

Palmer, a former president of the Law Commission, is proposing an amendment to the Crimes Act which would allow a person to be lawfully provided with medical assistance in dying where:

• (a) the person is of at least 18 years of age and capable of making decisions;
• (b) the person is a permanent resident of New Zealand;
• (c) the person has consented in writing to receive such assistance before two independent witnesses;
• (d) two medical practitioners have certified that the person has a grievous and incurable medical condition;
• (e) the medical condition is causing enduring suffering that is intolerable to the person in his or her circumstances and condition;
• (f) the facts have been reviewed by the Family Court and a judge has certified that the criteria laid down in the law have been met; and
• (g) there is a medical practitioner prepared to provide the assistance approved by the court.

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer set out his proposals in the Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture. Photo NZPA
Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer set out his proposals in the Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture. Photo NZPA

Palmer said the proposal had the advantage of avoiding health professional having to take responsibility for decisions about whether the person should be permitted to die.

He was not aware of any similar law in other countries.

"I am not here concerned to argue the case for a general right to die," he said. "In matter of this sort it is better to proceed with careful, small steps."

Under the current law, someone is liable to imprisonment for a maximum 14 years if they incite, counsel, or procures a person to commit suicide or if they aid and abet anyone in the commission of suicide.

And because culpable homicide involves the killing of any person by an unlawful act, Palmer said the risk of a physician being charged with murder or manslaughter if that health professional assisted another person to commit suicide was real.

"The law recognises no gradations," Palmer said. "It is a bright line legal rule and near absolute."

The health select committee of Parliament is currently conducting an inquiry into assisted dying to which Vickers gave evidence last week.

- NZ Herald

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