Here’s hoping the High Court can robustly defend the sanctity of life, writes John Roughan.
It is not often I wish I was a pensioner in Wellington but I did this week. Given spare time and proximity to the city's High Court, I would have been in the public gallery every day of the hearing of Lecretia Seales' request for euthanasia.
I'd have been very quiet, assuming most of those around me were friends and supporters of the 42-year-old woman with an inoperable brain tumour. When her battery of lawyers argued that her wish ought to be a matter between Lecretia and her doctor and that it was nobody else's business, I'd have been asking myself, why do I care? Why am I here?
All I know is that I do not want her to take her own life, with or without assistance, and nor does the law but I don't know why. I'd have come back the next day hoping to hear the Solicitor General, Mike Heron QC, provide a profound answer.
Reports from the court quote him saying the sanctity of life was a fundamental principle of the common law. "The principle recognises that human life is a basic, intrinsic good." The law was designed also to protect the vulnerable. "The right not to be killed is enjoyed regardless of inability or disability."
The spectre of the very old and infirm being pressured to request death is not a satisfying answer to the campaign for euthanasia. Doctors pull the plug on comatose patients every day with the consent of families. Voluntary euthanasia is a much more chilling, premeditated prospect.
Lawyers for Lecretia Seales contended that she and her doctor already have the right to make the decision under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act which provides for the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruelty.
Lecretia's right to life, argued Chris Curran, would be breached because if her request was denied she would be forced to take her life prematurely while she was still capable of doing so.
That was a heavy responsibility to hang on Justice David Collins who has reserved his decision, and Curran laid it on thick.
"It is dehumanising and devaluing for Lecretia to explore a secretive and lonely death," he said.
Justice Collins can simply decide his hands are tied. The Solicitor General told him Ms Seales was asking him to change the law, not clarify it. Strictly speaking only Parliament in this country can change the law but it would be idle for the judiciary to deny they can, and have, made significant social change in the name of "clarifying" real or imagined contradictions in legislation or applying it to new issues.
A great deal of modern law on the Treaty has been made that way.
I hope Justice Collins does not take the easy way out. I hope his decision, which he has undertaken to deliver soon, provides robust reasoning for the sanctity of life and the proper role of doctors.
I knew a woman who chose to die with dignity and she didn't ask a doctor to break a professional ethic. She woke up in a hospital to discover a stroke had immobilised her limbs on one side, and wished she had died. She survived unhappy in care for a while until one day she simply decided not to eat again.
When eventually she was taken back to hospital she made it clear she was not to be force-fed. Her wish was respected and in every other way her death was normal. Medicine kept her as comfortable as possible, family were at her bedside every day.
We didn't discuss her decision with her, we knew her too well to imagine anything we said would change her mind. One day near the end, I remember her remarking, "The dying is a painful business," as though it was just another of life's interesting experiences.
Her wish was respected in the minimal sense that it was her decision. I don't think any of us admired it. I couldn't begin to understand it. She had been such a strong-willed woman that I would have predicted she could fight her way, making the most of life with partial paralysis. Possibly the stroke had changed her character but it took an immensely strong will to die the way she did.
The campaign for euthanasia is asking for much more than the right to die with dignity. They want it to be lawful for doctors to assist them, not in the way they assisted my aunt but by a lethal act.
Ms Seales has a general practitioner who is prepared to kill her when she asks. Mr Curran suggested it could be done by changing a saline solution to a lethal substance. I know this offends me. I just need better minds to tell me why.
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