A terminally ill woman is mounting a legal challenge seeking the right for a doctor to help her die without criminal prosecution.
Lecretia Seales, 41, is dying from brain cancer and believes it's a "fundamental human right" to be able to choose to end her life with medical assistance, if she wants to, before her suffering becomes intolerable.
In a legal first in New Zealand, the senior legal and policy adviser at the Law Commission has filed a statement of claim in the High Court seeking a ruling to determine whether her GP could lawfully administer a lethal dose of drugs.
Assisting suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison but Ms Seales' case relies on the provisions in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act which protect the rights to not be deprived of life or subjected to cruel treatment.
If successful, the bid would allow the doctor to euthanise Ms Seales because of her specific circumstances and would not set a precedent. But a favourable High Court ruling would allow others to follow suit and potentially send a signal to Parliament for further law reform.
Diagnosed in 2011 with an aggressive brain tumour, Ms Seales has suffered gradual paralysis, which has robbed her of the ability to move her hand, arm, leg and eyesight on the left side of her body.
She's not afraid of death, but of losing her remaining physical and mental abilities. Even if the case is successful, Ms Seales is uncertain about ending her life with medical assistance.
"But I want the right to choose. That would give me comfort if I knew that [option] was there. I don't know whether I necessarily would because I'm certainly not suffering intolerably now," she told the Weekend Herald.
"Life is difficult, not intolerable at the moment. I'm still fighting. But things are only going to get worse."
Her challenge closely mirrors a recent Carter v Canada case where the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a criminal ban on medically assisted deaths and gave politicians 12 months to rework the legislation.
The case was originally brought on behalf of two women with degenerative diseases, Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor. The unanimous 9-0 decision by the judges found the criminal charge of assisting suicide - which like New Zealand had a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison - infringed on the rights protected in the Canadian equivalent of the Bill of Rights.
A key part of the judgment was the finding that the ban deprived some patients of the right to life.
"It has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable," wrote the court.
"An individual's response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security."
The legal bid from Ms Seales will make similar arguments in a New Zealand context, although if successful the court would not be able to order Parliament to reform the law.
Any ruling would be specific to the facts of her case, but Ms Seales is hopeful a favourable ruling from the court would send a strong message to politicians to change the law.
A private member's bill by former Labour MP Maryan Street in 2012 was dropped in December as Labour leader Andrew Little wanted to concentrate on other issues.
Ms Seales has written to Prime Minister John Key - whom she knows after a work secondment in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet - to inform him of the proceedings.
"Who should get to decide what happens to me? I'm not trying to impose my view on people that, you know, when you get to a certain state of sickness you should be put down," said Ms Seales. "If it was legal, then a person opposed to [voluntary euthanasia] can also make a choice not do to it. But I can't make a choice."
She said she would be proud if her court case prompted wider legislative change. "I'm reasonably confident that I won't be able to see it through to the end. But if I can get it started, that would make me happy."
In a statement issued today, Family First NZ described Ms Seales' situation as "heartbreaking", but said it "should not be solved in the courtroom or a change in law but through the guarantee of the best palliative care".
"Patients facing death have a fundamental human right to receive the very best palliative care, love and support that we can give to alleviate 'intolerable suffering' that they fear," Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First NZ, said.
"This is real death with dignity - surrounded and supported by loved ones, rather than a right to try and preempt the 'uncertainty' and timing of the end. Suicide is not the answer."
The organisation had "massive empathy" for Ms Seale, but said if her legal challenge was successful, "it would be the thin edge of the wedge" and a "slippery slope".
"However well-intentioned, the old adage that. 'hard cases make bad law', comes into play," Mr McCoskrie said.
"To allow assisted suicide would place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk - in particular those who are depressed, elderly, sick, disabled, those experiencing chronic illness, limited access to good medical care, and those who feel themselves to be under emotional or financial pressure to request early death."
Euthanasia-Free New Zealand also issued a statement to media saying a change to New Zealand law on assisted suicide and euthanasia was "not in society's best interests".
While Ms Seales' case was intended for her individual circumstances, it would "in the long run adversely affect the rights of many others in our society", Professor David Richmond, spokesman for the organisation, said.
"Ms Seales' request is superficially a simple one based on personal choice and autonomy. Unfortunately the issues are far more complex for society than that," he said."Current laws were drawn up to guarantee citizens the right to life.
If Ms Seales' actions were to lead eventually to the decriminalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, as she apparently hopes they will, citizens will be guaranteed the right to state-sanctioned death - presumably at the hands of doctors."
- New Zealand Herald