First published on Thursday the 28th of January, 2016, this piece comes in at number 28 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.
"I'm not afraid of being dead. I'm just afraid of what you might have to go through to get there." - Pamela Bone
Imagine: you’re all alone, trapped in a bed, feeling those four walls close in on you. Each and every day is filled with humiliation and pain as eventually you may not be able to eat, drink, move or feed yourself unassisted. You don’t want your loved ones to see you like this: a skeleton, a shadow, a shell of your former self. So you lie on that bed day after day after day after day, hoping for a quick death. But it never comes.
Although the inevitability of death must eventually be accepted by all members of humanity, most people do not consider that their own life could end in terminal illness. In contrast to the preferred image of passing away painlessly in the presence of loved ones, death could be agonisingly prolonged. The exponential advancement of medicine is staggering, but for those suffering from the most serious illnesses, there is often no hope of a cure – as Lecretia Seales knew all too well.
After Lecretia was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011, she received radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment which maintained her quality of life until 2014, when her physical and mental health started to deteriorate. Lecretia knew that the loss of her bodily functions, including movement and communication, would be irreversible, leaving her a shell of the person she was. With her background as a public and constitutional lawyer in Wellington, Lecretia was determined to appeal to the High Court of New Zealand to legalise assisted dying so that she and other New Zealanders in her situation would have the option of dying with dignity.
There had been two previous attempts to legalise euthanasia in 1996 and 2003. Lecretia viewed this as a more kind-hearted option to suicide or palliative care; the former would have required her to give up valuable time with her loved ones to take her own life while she was still physically able to, the latter could not adequately alleviate the immense amount of pain she experienced.
In March 2015 Lecretia went before the High Court of New Zealand with the argument that it went against the 1961 Crimes Act and the 1962 Bill of Rights Act to prosecute the doctor willing to assist her and to refuse her wish to die on her own terms. Although Justice Collins did not rule in Lecretia’s favour, he did acknowledge in his judgment that:
- Palliative care cannot provide relief from suffering in all cases.
- Persons with terminal illnesses may take their lives early, while they retain the ability to do so.
- Health professionals’ views on the ethics assisted dying of assisted dying are not unanimous.
- Lecretia’s assertion that she was not vulnerable must be respected.
Lecretia died naturally on the fifth of June: the day when the public were informed of the results of her case. She was posthumously awarded the prestigious title of The New Zealand Herald’s New Zealander of the Year in December 2015.
After Lecretia’s death, her widower Matt Vickers has continued to campaign for her proposal: That the House of Representatives investigate fully public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit medically-assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable. Their combined actions have resulted in the country’s Health Select Committee reviewing this issue.
If Lecretia’s recommendation is accepted, New Zealand will join Belgium, Switzerland, Colombia, the Netherlands, Canada (as of February 2016) and the North American states of California, Washington, Montana, Oregon and Vermont in legalising assisted dying. It is also thought that New Zealand would instigate similar procedures to these countries. These would include having two doctors validate that patients are terminally ill and that they are sound of mind when making their decision.
Personally, I hold the perspective that terminally ill New Zealanders should be allowed to choose if they wish to end their lives via assisted dying. I cannot think of anything worse in life than dying slowly and painfully in front of my loved ones, meeting their eyes to see their helpless looks. I am lucky to have not yet had a close family member or friend die in this manner, but I am resigned to the fact that one day this could be how several of us go.
I accept the inevitable process of aging, that there will be a day for us all when we are no longer able to run and dance and walk without pain. However, dying slowly and painfully as shells of our former selves is hardly appealing. Let at least the option of assisted dying be legally available, if not for you, then for your loved ones.
If you would like to know more about Lecretia and her wishes, check out this incredible TED talk Matt Vickers gave at Christchurch in 2015.
To the New Zealand readers: If you wish to support the proposed legalisation, please make a submission to the Select Health Committee today. Submissions close on the first of February 2016.