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Case brings issue of euthanasia in NZ to light

By Sasha Borissenko 

This week's action in the High Court by Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales has brought a lot of attention on the issue of euthanasia in New Zealand.

Ms Seales, a policy advisor for the Law Commission, brought her case before the Wellington High Court on 25 May, seeking declarations that the Crimes Act is inconsistent with her right to life and the right not to be subject to cruel or degrading treatment under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

The 42-year-old was first diagnosed with a brain tumour in March 2011 and is expected to die between three and 18 months. The debilitating nature of her condition means her eyesight is failing, she suffers severe headaches, has difficulty swallowing and she is reduced to using a wheelchair.

Ms Seales claims it is not a question of changing or clarifying the law generally but that the Crimes Act sections on assisting suicide and killing can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with her rights.

Her general practitioner, who has name suppression, has agreed to help her die in a way not detailed, if it is deemed to be in line with the Crimes Act.

In written evidence to the court Ms Seales has said she wishes to say “goodbye” in a way that she doesn’t need to be dependent on others for care. She doesn’t want to lose her dignity, change the independent nature of her character or face suffering.

Without the option of assisted-suicide, Ms Seales argues she would have to choose between intolerable suffering or a secret and isolated suicide.

The decision is expected to be released in early June.

The political climate around euthanasia in New Zealand

In 1995 MP Michael Laws sought to introduce the Death with Dignity Bill, together with terminally ill MP Cam Campion. The bill was to come into force only after a national referendum, to be held after the next general election in 1996. The bill came before the House on 2 August 1996 and was deferred to 16 August. The matter was sent to a select committee as to whether the bill be introduced into the House: 29 voted yes, 61 voted no.

In 1997 MP Peter Brown pledged to introduce a new Private Member’s Bill into Parliament, together with MP Chris Carter. Following a number of “mercy killing” cases in the courts a second Death with Dignity Bill was promoted and drawn from the ballot on 6 March 2003. The bill was defeated by 60 to 57 votes.

In 2012 MP Maryan Street introduced a Private Member’s Bill titled the End-of-Life Choice Bill. In October 2013 she withdrew the bill but promised to return it to the ballot after the September 2014 general election.

Street wasn’t re-elected so MP Iain Lees-Galloway announced that he would sponsor the bill. He since decided not to resubmit the bill to the ballot at the request of Labour Leader Andrew Little in December 2014.

Euthanasia in the courts

In 1999 Lesley Martin attempted to kill her terminally ill mother by overdose and suffocation with a pillow. Following a police investigation no charges were laid against Martin. Police relaunched the homicide investigation after Martin described how she tried to kill her mother in her book, “To Die Like a Dog”.

In 2003 Martin was arrested for the attempted murder of her dying mother and she was convicted in 2004. She served nine months of a fifteen-month sentence and failed two appeal attempts to have her conviction overturned.

In 1998 the Auckland High Court granted doctors the authority to remove life support from a severely disabled infant despite the parents’ strong opposition.The baby was born with Mobius Syndrome and Polands anomaly and couldn’t swallow, feed or breathe on her own. The baby was put in the court’s guardianship because they considered it was in the baby's best interests. Neonatal intensive care specialists withdrew life support. While the judges admitted the parent's wishes should be taken into account, they could have no veto authority. 

In April 1999 John Karnon was sentenced in the Auckland High Court to two years supervision after pleading guilty to a charge of manslaughter following the death of his ill wife in January 1999.

In October 2001 Dr Chris Simpson was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years imprisonment after his terminally ill mother was found dead in October 2000.

In August 2002 Rex Law was sentenced to 18-month in prison with the option of home detention following the death of his ill wife in March 2002. He served nine months in prison.

In May 2003 police dropped criminal charges against Ralph Vincent following the death of his terminally ill wife in September 2002. Mrs Vincent was found with a plastic bag over her head. The investigation into Mrs Vincent's death centred on whether it was suicide or assisted suicide. In April 2005, Mr Vincent, 86, was found dead.

In 2004 a Nelson man was found not guilty of the murder or manslaughter of his 5-month old infant daughter.

In 2009 Professor Sean Davison documented the final days of his mother’s life including the assisted use of morphine to end her life. He was initially charged with attempted murder in 2011, but later pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of inciting and procuring suicide. He was sentenced to five months home detention.

The legislation

The process of a natural death by refusing medical treatment or intervention is legal. Section 11 of the the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 gives an unambiguous right to refuse medical treatment.

The Code of Health Consumers' Rights confirms that statutory right and enshrines in law the use of an appropriate Advance Directive, which does not have to be in writing.

Assisting in a suicide or hastening a death is illegal. Aiding or abetting in any way is illegal and subject to heavy penalties. The Crimes Act 1961 does not deal directly with euthanasia, but legislates on suicide and assisting another person to die:

Section 167(a) says it is murder if the offender means to cause the death of the person killed.

Section 179 covers aiding or abetting suicide.

Both Death with Dignity Bills sought exemptions to these prohibitions.

The situation overseas

Jurisdictions where euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal include Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Colombia, Estonia, Albania, the US states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont and as of this year, the Canadian Province of Quebec. 

The British House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics defines euthanasia as "a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering".

In the Netherlands and Flanders, euthanasia is understood as "termination of life by a doctor at the request of a patient".

Euthanasia is categorised in different ways, which include voluntary, non-voluntary, or involuntary. Non-voluntary euthanasia, which is sometimes described as “mercy killing” is illegal in all countries. Involuntary euthanasia is generally considered murder. 

Last updated on the 28th May 2015