Late in March a 41-year-old lawyer in Wellington went to the High Court to ask that her doctor be given the right to end her life. Lecretia Seales had terminal cancer. "Life is difficult, not intolerable at the moment," she said. "I am still fighting, but things are only going to get worse." Her request was heard in late May.

Justice David Collins issued his decision quickly as her condition was deteriorating. He was not persuaded that the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act could override the Crimes Act and permit a doctor to deliberately bring about a patient's death. Lecretia Seales died a few days after reading the judgment.

Law reform had been her profession at the Law Commission and she had offered the end of her life as a test case for law in this most difficult dilemma for medical and legal ethics. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who worked with her at the commission, said, "Her idea to turn her experience into a law reform project was typical of her. I salute her." So do we.

It is never easy at the end of a year to select one person from all those who have contributed something valuable and inspiring to New Zealand life but Lecretia Seales is our New Zealander of the year.

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It is not necessary to support the case for euthanasia to appreciate what she has done. Several European countries have recently legalised euthanasia, as has Canada and some states of America. It is a debate that we should have, even if we decide in the end that the case for it has not been made. Thanks to Lecretia Seales it is a debate we will have.

Justice Collins' decision put the ball firmly in Parliament's court and the health select committee is going to hold a public inquiry. Not for the first time in recent years, a private member's bill is also in the ballot for parliamentary attention, but if David Seymour's bill is drawn for debate it will owe its inspiration to Lecretia Seales.

Comparisons of our nominees for the annual accolade are always invidious. How can Lecretia Seales' contribution be compared to that of Dr Ed Mitchell whose cot death research is saving the lives of babies, or broadcaster Rachel Smalley who described for us the plight of Syrian refugees, former police officer Tim McKinnel who worked to correct a miscarriage of justice against Teina Pora, 10-year old Sean Roberts who petitioned Parliament for mandatory driving tests for tourists, Lisa King and Michael Meredith who conceived a scheme to provide school lunches for children without one?

There was Auckland architect Julie Stout who took the port to court and stopped its wharf extensions, Tania Billingsley who ensures a Malaysian diplomat was brought back to the country to face sexual charges, Rebecca Kitteridge who has given the public more insight to its secret intelligence agencies. And no contribution to the lighter side of New Zealand life this year has been greater than that of Steve Hansen and Richie McCaw, coach and captain of the World Cup-winning All Blacks.

But for someone to offer something as personal and private as their death for the advancement of a human right, as she saw it, was exceptional. Her final wishes are of interest to both sides of the debate. Her case will live on.