02:01, November 03 96 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-03 02:01:04
My late wife, an extraordinary hero, was instrumental in New Zealand legalising assisted dying

In May 2015, my late wife, the lawyer Lecretia Seales, sued the New Zealand government for the right to choose to be assisted to die. She was terminally ill and in rapid decline. It was her last, desperate attempt to win back some control in a situation in which she felt that all control was lost.

We received the first part of the court judgment within a week of the trial. The judge worked almost 24/7 to provide it to her before she passed.

“Lecretia listened to me as I explained,” I wrote in my book, Lecretia’s Choice.

“She could not speak, but she was able to share her feelings through her eyes and her expression. There was no mistaking her response. She was hurt and disappointed. She fixed me with a stare, as if to say: Isn’t this my body? My life? Her breath slowed. She turned her head away. I wondered whether I should have been telling her any of this. Her reaction broke my heart.”

She died a few days later, believing that she’d failed.

Now, more than five years after her death, she achieved the change she wanted and has forever secured her place in New Zealand’s legislative history.

Lecretia’s case sparked anew a debate in New Zealand that had been quietly smouldering for decades. Should mentally competent people who are facing nothing but unbearable suffering at the end of their lives be forced to endure that suffering until their body concedes defeat and expires? Or should it be permissible for a rational, terminally-ill adult, able to make decisions about almost every other aspect of their life, to choose how and when they die?

The End of Life Choice Bill endured one of the most prolonged legislative periods of any bill in New Zealand’s parliamentary history.

At the third and final reading in November last year, after many amendments had considerably tightened the bill, it passed by 69 votes to 51 and was enacted pending a successful referendum. It would be the first time, anywhere in the world, that the legalisation of assisted dying would be decided by public vote.

While grappling with lockdowns and a faltering economy due to Covid-19, New Zealanders were asked to wrestle with this pivotal life and death issue. The referendum asked: “Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force?”

Although polling for assisted dying support in New Zealand had always been high, the timing of the referendum would prove challenging for supporters. The country was doing everything it could to protect its most vulnerable citizens from the ravages of a deadly pandemic but was also asking whether very ill citizens should be able to end their lives early to avoid suffering the worst of their illnesses.

Public support, once resolute, began to waver. Opponents began to undermine confidence in the bill through expensive advertising campaigns. They claimed the law lacked safeguards, while lawyers on the other side countered that the bill was so strict it risked being inaccessible. Supporters, including myself, kept pointing people back to the details of the bill and who would qualify.

An applicant would have to fulfil all of the following criteria:

  • be aged 18 years or over

  • be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand

  • suffer from a terminal illness that’s likely to end their life within six months

  • have significant and ongoing decline in physical capability

  • experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased

  • be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying.

The law also makes clear that a person would not be eligible to ask for assisted dying if the only reason they give is that they have a mental disorder or mental illness, have a disability of any kind, or are of advanced age.

Last week, two weeks after the New Zealand general election, New Zealanders received the preliminary referendum results: 65% yes and 34% no are so decisive that it is virtually impossible for the remaining uncounted special votes to change the outcome.

My late wife, Lecretia, will never know the impact she had. But her family, friends and I, who all loved her very much, now know that this extraordinary person, who was private and quiet and kind, will never be forgotten. We will all take great comfort in that.

New Zealanders too can take comfort that if they find themselves in a situation where they have a terminal illness and no hope of recovery, they will now have a choice about how they die. They will be granted the choice that my late wife was denied.

For me, the successful referendum result marks the end of an almost six-year campaign to ensure my late wife’s efforts were not in vain. During that time, I moved to the United States, remarried, and had a child. When the result was announced at New Zealand Parliament’s Grand Hall, I was dialled in via Zoom from my New York apartment, feeling elated but also pained that I couldn’t be there in Wellington to celebrate in person. Since her death, there had always been a tension between wanting to move on with my life, as Lecretia wanted me to do, while having one foot in the past. Now that the law has changed, I can finally let Lecretia go.

I will never forget Lecretia, but I will learn to live without her. And my late wife, the extraordinary hero that she was, can finally rest in peace, and victory.

Matt Vickers is the widower of assisted dying campaigner Lecretia Seales, and the author of Lecretia’s Choice (Text Publishing)