The legacy of euthanasia campaigner Lecretia Seales reverberated through Parliament on November 13, 2019 as MPs passed a historic bill legalising assisted dying, turning the final decision over to the public via a referendum. MPs voted through David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill 69 votes to 51, ending years of fierce political arguments. Sentenced to death by cancer four years ago, Seales set out to gain the right to choose how she would die. Phil Taylor’s 2015 report:
Lecretia Seales is our New Zealander of the Year because of what she did in the last act of her life. She was a private person who stepped into the limelight to ask the courts to give her the right to die. She has gone now but may have left her legacy.
Where does her story begin? In March, dying of brain cancer, Seales asked the High Court to give her the legal right for a doctor to help end her life. She wanted the right to choose to not die a painful death. On June 5, soon after being told that her court bid was unsuccessful, Seales died of her illness. She was 42.
But as a result of the debate she prompted, 8975 people signed a petition, Parliament began the first public inquiry into the issue of medically-assisted dying and Prime Minister John Key said that in the unlikely event that a private member’s bill on the subject was drawn from the ballot – Act leader David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill – he would vote for it.
Seales’ husband, Matt Vickers, who is writing a book about his wife’s dying quest, told the Herald this week that a carefully-constrained law change is what she wanted. Vickers spoke of the responsibility he feels “to ensure that Lecretia’s personal sacrifice wasn’t for nothing”.
He hopes that consensual, physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients will be legalised, but is aware the issue remains a political hot potato despite favourable opinion polls.
Seales was a lawyer who worked in law reform, defining and modernising rights.
When she first talked about taking proceedings, Vickers was cautious.
He asked his wife why she would bring that attention on herself.
“She was a private person who found herself in circumstances where she was more than willing to put herself in the public eye. Once she decided that this was important to her, she felt like she had a responsibility to do it, given her experience of the law, given that she had a terminal illness.”
She understood how to achieve law change from working with Sir Geoffrey Palmer at Chen Palmer and at the Law Commission, where she was involved in reviews of the Sale of Liquor Act, the Judicature Act and the War Pensions Act. She travelled the country talking to veterans for the last of those reviews. It was advocacy work to her, says Vickers, making sure that veterans got a better deal via the legislation.
“That’s what the law was to her, it was something in service to us, something that reflected our values. You can question it, you can tweak it to make it serve us better.”
The story of her illness began in March 2011, when headaches led to the discovery of a brain tumour. A week later she was in surgery. Then came radiotherapy. By May she had returned to work at the Law Commission, telling her mother, Shirley, that she had no excuse not to go back to the office. Her work was her calling.
Vickers tells of falling for the stunning woman he met in 2003 in a Wellington bar, Hummingbird. It was a chance encounter as neither she nor he (he was working on a Masters of Creative Writing degree) were bar-flies. “The photos don’t really do her justice,” he said, “this wonderful, gracious, kind human being who also happened to be spectacularly beautiful.”
They were engaged after two years, married 12 months after that.
Life was idyllic: a house in Karori, a cat. Seales desperately wanted a family. After years of unsuccessful fertility treatments they found an egg donor via a San Diego clinic. But on the eve of signing a donor contract, Seales was referred by her doctor to a neurologist to explore the cause of headaches and the tumour was found.
She was an excellent cook who loved to plan and present dinner parties to treat family and friends. She loved travel, reading, music and dance – jazz-ballet, hip-hop and the tango lessons she took with her husband until her brain cancer diagnosis.
It is strange to recall, said Vickers, how after she returned to work following surgery and radiotherapy, life almost returned to normal. Her hair had grown back only in patches but that was okay. She wore a skullcap and hairpieces. “It seemed like she might have decades.” They talked about trying for children again. She was fine for two years.
Her health declined towards the end of 2013 and she started to use a walking stick. She had chemotherapy and picked up enough to throw away the stick. “And then in late 2014 the drugs stopped working and we were out of options.”
Then came her last legal work – going to court to seek the right to choose the manner of her death.
Vickers prefers the term “assisted dying” to suicide, or euthanasia. The people who jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Centre in 2001 didn’t choose suicide but between two certain deaths. One of the most recognised images from the 9-11 terrorist attacks has been called “The Falling Man”. It was of an unidentified man who was trapped on one of the upper levels and ultimately made the decision to jump to his death instead of being burned alive or suffocated by smoke. Some have estimated that upwards of 200 people stepped off the ledge.
The point is that they didn’t choose to die but chose how they died. New York City officials recognised this by the decision to classify these deaths as homicide by blunt force trauma instead of suicide.
Vickers refers to an article by a Christian author, Benjamin L. Corey, who wrote that, “It seems disingenuous to force someone to choose between two ways of dying and then turn on them in judgement for picking the least painful of the two options.” The article was prompted last year by 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who ended her life under legal doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon State and whose campaign sparked debate across the United States. Maynard had terminal brain cancer, like Seales. Like the 9/11 jumpers, Maynard didn’t have a choice in dying but only in how she died, wrote Corey, so why were attitudes different to those suffering a terminal disease – “a death sentence that becomes their burning building”?
Maynard and Seales had beauty as well as their disease and predicament in common. It helped their stories to spread. Seales hadn’t considered the right-to-die campaign until reading about Maynard. “No, not until that Brittany Maynard Facebook thing came up,” she told the Herald in March. “A couple of friends said to me, ‘You could do something about that,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I could.’ And I think that’s right.”
Whether she would have ended her life had her lawsuit succeeded wasn’t the point. “But I want the right to choose,” she said, “that would give me comfort.”
Taking a public stand came at the same time her cancer drained her, says Vickers. “I am extremely proud of her. She knew she was in decline after she submitted the statement of claim to the High Court but she pushed on. She made me read her all the affidavits, she made comments and those were passed back to the legal team, and she turned up in that court room [in a wheelchair] and she fronted up on camera. She was obviously physically affected and she fronted, she was brave.”
She sought criminal law declarations that would have allowed her willing doctor to legally administer or provide her with drugs to end her life. To do so would have changed the effect of the offence provisions of the Crimes Act, changes that Justice David Collins decided could be made only by Parliament, such were the “complex legal, philosophical, moral and clinical issues raised”.
“I’m not sure she would have exercised the choice, even if she had got it,” says Vickers.
“It was most important that the law acknowledge that as a free-thinking, competent individual that she had the right to make that decision for herself.”
She would have thought that being named the Herald’s New Zealander of the Year was “over the top, because she felt she was just doing what was right”, he says. “Some people take the law into their own hands but that wouldn’t play for her. She wanted to do it in a way that respected the law and got the issues out there.”
Vickers is not without if-onlys. It could have made a difference, he believes, had her tumour been detected earlier, had his wife been less stoic about headaches, had she possessed less of that Kiwi aversion to making a fuss. It took a major headache for Seales to complain.
“If we had engendered enough panic in the GP to order a scan [earlier], or had we just turned up at A & E …”
His wife was “kind, principled, dedicated, loyal, strong, optimistic, good-humoured, a lover of life”. She brought all of those attributes to her decision to challenge her country on an issue that isn’t going to go away. The clock was against her but she was willing to try to be a catalyst.
The last word is hers.
“I’m reasonably confident that I won’t be able to see it through to the end,” she told the Herald in March, when announcing her legal challenge. “But if I can get it started, that would make me happy.”
Twenty years of bills
National MP Michael Laws’ Death With Dignity Bill, jointly drafted with former MP Cam Campion, who was dying of cancer. It proposed that the bill would only become law after a binding referendum to be held with the 1996 general election. Failed to be referred to select committee by a vote of 61-29, with many abstentions.
2003: Peter Brown’s Death With Dignity Bill was supported by the leaders (at the time) of the two major parties, John Key and David Cunliffe, but narrowly failed to proceed to select committee stage.
2012: Labour MP Maryan Street sought to introduce a Member’s Bill to Parliament (the End of Life Choice Bill) which would allow those terminally ill to choose when to die, and to be able to receive medical support to do so under certain circumstances. She said it would only apply to people who were of sound mind and suffered from a terminal illness, or an irreversible condition which made their life unbearable, in their own view, and would need two doctors to attest these conditions applied and that the person had not been co-coerced.
September 2013: Street withdrew the Bill “because she didn’t want it tainted by election-year dynamics”. When she was not re-elected, her Bill was taken up Iain Lees-Galloway but in December 2014 was formally dropped from the Private Member’s Bill ballot at the request of new Labour party leader Andrew Little.
August 2015: The Health Select Committee began the first parliamentary public inquiry into euthanasia as a direct result of Seales’ court judgement.
October 2015: A bill legalising voluntary euthanasia was introduced to the ballot by Act leader David Seymour.