On Simon O’Connor’s Comments On Suicide
A few days ago, National Tamaki MP Simon O’Connor publicly commented that Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was hypocritical in her dismay at New Zealand’s deplorable youth suicide statistics while supporting assisted dying. He believes there are no shades of grey with suicide: that the ending of a life by one’s own hand, or the assistance of another, is always suicide, no matter the circumstances of the person involved, and that Ardern’s views on suicide and assisted dying were inconsistent.
Like the Pharisees of the New Testament, he has chosen to cleave to the letter of the law, rather than its spirit. And in doing so, he has blinded himself to the different circumstances a person at the end of their life might find themselves in, and the choices they might want. For him, it’s all the same, and he’s got the dictionary to prove it.
I don’t hold the same view as Mr O’Connor. Like most New Zealanders, I look beyond raw semantics, and see a world of difference between a depressed teenager, who needs help and support to choose life, and a rational, terminally ill human being whose quality of life is in sharp decline, who seeks to abbreviate their suffering when the outcome is almost certainly death. I am as shocked and appalled at New Zealand’s terrible record on suicide as anyone. Both Lecretia and I had the experience of losing people close to us to suicide during our youth.
Losing friends and family to suicide is utterly heartbreaking, and it’s something New Zealand must act on. But heartlessly forcing the terminally ill to suffer against their will in service to a dictionary definition, by putting them in the same category as suicides, is not the way to do that. For all the reasons someone might have to oppose assisted dying, this must rank among the worst.
In a speech I gave at parliament last year, I said:
“You will notice I use the words assisted dying. I find the word suicide offensive in relation to my wife. It stifles the debate and mischaracterises my wife’s intent and those of people like her. She did not want to die. She was not depressed. She loved her life. But she was dying, and she knew it. All she sought was to exercise control over how. That distinguishes her from a suicide, whom society must help and give hope. It does not help the debate when we refer to assisted dying as suicide as it is distinct and separate and we must continue to advocate strongly for suicide prevention, which is a separate issue. We can’t do that when we call assisted dying the same thing as suicide. Words matter.”
When the Health Select Committee began hearing submissions on ending one’s life in New Zealand, I was invited to be the first to address them. I sat across from Simon O’Connor and the rest of the committee and gave him my views. Mr O’Connor had previously told the media he would listen to all views, and welcome debate.
However, in that hearing, Mr O’Connor would barely meet my gaze. From the time I began speaking, to the time I finished, he spent the majority of his time looking at the papers laid out in front of him. Nevertheless, I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This was despite some significant evidence that Mr O’Connor was not being completely impartial. Mr O’Connor is on record as being a guest speaker at a Palmerston North Parish in November 2015, outlining anti-assisted dying arguments, while the inquiry was underway. In interviews with Catholic publications during the inquiry, he encouraged people to submit to the committee against assisted dying. These are not the actions of a respectable select committee chair, a job he is paid over and above his standard MP salary to do.
The inquiry itself chose terms of reference which reflected O’Connor’s beliefs. Instead of investigating attitudes to assisted dying in New Zealand, as the petition requested, the committee declared the terms of reference would be ‘an investigation into ending one’s life in New Zealand.’ It’s subtle, but the choice to conflate suicide with assisted dying was immediately apparent, along with the intent to drive the inquiry in a particular direction. The result, released a couple of months ago, was a fairly tepid summary of views, with no real recommendations either way.
Despite the many emotional and personal stories presented to the committee, it’s clear that Mr O’Connor remained unmoved, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his recent comments regarding Ms Ardern.
In a forum with Family First earlier this year, Prime Minister Bill English said: “If you’re looking to the Government to be the arbiter of morality, you are going to be constantly, consistently disappointed. What drives in my view constructive social behaviour is our families, our iwi, our churches, our communities.”
Despite not holding the same views as the Prime Minister on assisted dying, I agree with Mr English that it is not the role of government to enforce a particular flavour of morality: Catholic, Anglican, Islamic or otherwise. And when it comes down to it, the choice to be assisted to die, or not, is one that should be consistent with one’s personal views on the morality of the act. Respecting an individual’s beliefs on this, when we each have our own views on religion and spirituality, is what a Western democracy should do. I have no problem with the Catholic church preaching against assisted dying to their congregation, but it’s wrong for them to try and use the law to impose their beliefs on those that do not share them. To steal a favourite cliche of opponents of assisted dying, that path is a slippery slope to theocracy.
O’Connor’s comments were made on World Suicide Prevention Day, and his timing couldn’t be worse. At a time when people were grieving for friends and family lost to New Zealand’s terrible mental health epidemic, he chose to try and score political points by using the lens of his beliefs to question Ardern’s sincerity. It’s incredibly disappointing and insensitive, and I trust his party will reprimand him for it. O’Connor represents a combination of moral prescriptivism and tone-deafness that I believe our parliament would be better off without: the same strain that’s common to Colin Craig, Gordon Copeland, and Graham Capill. The National Party needs to reflect on whether it’s really appropriate for them to be an asylum for that kind of thinking while claiming as their values personal responsibility, and individual freedom and choice. That is the true inconsistency.
Next month I come back to New Zealand from New York for a couple of weeks, for the purpose of the second Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture in Law Reform. It will be given by Professor Doug Sellman, and is on the topic of Law, Liquor and Love. I’m very pleased with the subject, as it was one close to Lecretia’s heart.
Before Lecretia became ill, one of the projects she worked on at the Law Commission was a review of alcohol laws in New Zealand, under the leadership of Sir Geoffrey Palmer. It was more than an academic exercise – Lecretia and Geoffrey went out with emergency services teams to see how they coped with Friday and Saturday nights in downtown Wellington, and they consulted with people from both the hospitality industry, who espoused more liberalisation of laws, people in health, who discussed the impact of alcohol on their ability to provide adequate healthcare, and plenty of others besides.
The Law Commission investigation resulted in a 587-page report on the regulatory framework for the sale and supply of liquor. It contained 153 recommendations on changes to the law. Ultimately, the government implemented 126 of those recommendations in the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act 2012.
Professor Sellman is extremely well-qualified to discuss the impact of those changes, and to give his thoughts on the effects of the reforms that were made in 2012, and whether they went too far, or not far enough.
The lecture will be held at the Old Government Buildings, 55 Lambton Quay, in Wellington on June 8th, at 5:45pm, and all are welcome. It’ll be a great event. If you’d like to attend, please RSVP to email@example.com.
In the past year I have been focussing on promoting Lecretia’s Choice, and learning more about assisted dying. I had the honour of meeting the team at Dignitas in Zürich, Switzerland, and the team at Fundacion de Morir Dignamente in Bogotá, Colombia, to see how the laws and practice of assisted dying works in those countries. After spending time with those wonderful, caring people, I am more convinced than ever that assisted dying, is justified, merciful, and human.
I’m extremely pleased with the reception Lecretia’s Choice has received from readers, and have received some incredibly touching and supportive messages and emails from people who have read the book. My favourite review was from an Australian palliative care nurse who stopped me after I gave a talk at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival last year, to tell me that she’d been against assisted dying, but that she’d read the book and that it had changed her mind.
Lecretia’s Choice has only been available for sale in print form in Australia and New Zealand, but I’m pleased to share that it will be available in the United Kingdom in July, and in the United States in November. I’m excited that British and American readers will get the chance to read it. It is highly topical given Noel Conway’s case in the UK, and the continuing efforts for reform in the USA.
New Zealand’s Health Select Committee is still working on their feedback on their investigation into assisted dying, after reviewing thousands of written submissions and hearing from hundreds of people in person. I’m hopeful we’ll hear back from them soon and I’ll be very interested to hear what they have to say. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that they recommend some positive changes to how we deal with assisted dying in New Zealand.
Yesterday I found my diary clear of appointments, and with the prospect of heading to Australia and then back home to New York for several months, I decided to drive south from Auckland to Tauranga. Lecretia is buried there, in a quiet, well-maintained cemetery. I also wanted to see Lecretia’s parents, Larry and Shirley, and to visit Ferdinand, Lecretia’s cat, who now lives with them.
About twenty kilometres before reaching Tauranga, I began to see signs for Te Puna. Lecretia and I were married there, at St Joseph’s Church. Te Puna is a small, semi-rural community. On a whim, I took an exit off the highway and drove through the backroads, letting my memory guide me.
It didn’t take long to find the church. It was smaller than I remembered. It was painted white, with a green roof, and the grounds were well-manicured. The entrance to the church grounds were secured with a white gate, over which a traditional Māori waharoa arch is placed. I undid the latch and entered the grounds, half-expecting someone to stop me.
No one did. It was a Saturday afternoon and the grounds were deserted. Being far back from the main road, there was barely any sound, only a unseen tractor lumbering somewhere in the distance, and the crunch of my shoes on the gravel underfoot.
I hadn’t been back to the church since our wedding day. Lecretia had often talked of going back there for a service, to sit on the pews as parishioners, and not as a bridal party, to experience the church in an ordinary Sunday service. We had done that once, before the wedding, and we found it a pleasant experience. The people there were kind and friendly, and shook our hands and smiled after the service, and we shook theirs. I remember finding it odd how welcoming they had been of these strangers in their midst.
I walked up the steps to the door of the church. To my right was a noticeboard, highlighting various community events, but on the top corner, taking up most of it, was a poster from Right to Life with a picture of a foetus in the womb. Right to Life has now taken to issuing press releases against my statements to the media, even going so far as to issue at least one Press Council complaint against a newspaper that published my story, and a Broadcasting Standards Authority complaint against a radio station that broadcast an interview with me. Neither were upheld. Ironically, this same organisation has been decrying that their free speech is being attacked because a Green MP had the audacity to suggest that scared young women might not want to be threatened with plastic babies, placards and prayers when they visited hospitals to undergo the traumatic experience of seeking abortions.
I tried the door of the church, and it was unlocked. I walked into the cool, dim interior, and stood in the nave, taking it all in. There was the transept where we had stood and had exchanged our vows. There was the stained glass window in the apse where the light had shone through. There were the rows of pews, on the edge of which I remembered ribbons. The church had been full of our friends and family once. Lecretia had walked in, past where I now stood, accompanied by her father and a bridal march, and approached me in front of the chancel. She had never looked more spectacular that day. And she was never happier.
I turned to leave the church and something caught my eye. In the narthex, behind the last pew, was a stack of leaflets. I walked to them and spotted one that was immediately familiar. It was a Care Alliance leaflet, professionally printed, with the telltale dandelion logo in the top left corner. It was a leaflet instructing the reader to write to the Health Select Committee against assisted dying. Inside the leaflet were step-by-step instructions and a list of reasons why assisted dying, according to them, was unnecessary and unsafe. The deadline for submissions had long since passed, but a small stack of leaflets remained, evidence of an earlier agitation.
How many leaflets did they print I wondered? Did every church in New Zealand have a similar pile? What words were uttered here, in this place that we married, in relation to me and my wife? I know some opponents throw the words murder and suicide around in relation to assisted dying, were those words uttered here?
The Care Alliance, for all its claims of being a group of many faiths and beliefs, certainly knew its audience and where to find its most impressionable supporters. Through the exhortations of priests and ministers, they banged the drum and blew the trumpet. Euthanasia, they must have said, just one more herald of the end of days.
The church didn’t feel that welcome all of a sudden. I left, and closed the door, and descended the steps, the same steps I had descended with my bride ten years prior. On that day I was happy, but on this day I was aggrieved and my feelings confused. I walked out and over to the car, started the engine, and drove away. I doubt I will ever return.
There’s a moment in my new book, Lecretia’s Choice, where I describe Lecretia telling me she’s made the decision to take her case to the High Court. At the time, I tried to dissuade her, worried about the impact it might have on us both.
“It’s my case,” she said, “You won’t even be involved.”
Eighteen months later, I couldn’t be more involved. Neither her nor I could have predicted how things would turn out.
I moved to New York for work in April of this year, and this weekend I head back to New Zealand for the first time since then.
On the 24th of August I will appear before the Health Select Committee to speak to my submission. It’s too early to say just how the submissions have turned out, but having had a glance through some of them, it’s clear that church groups have been very active in compelling their parishioners to write to the committee. There’s a large number of sheets of paper with “I am against euthanasia because …” printed at the top, with printed instructions at the bottom to leave their handwritten submissions in a pile at the back of the church for collection. It’s not hard to imagine the content of the sermon that would precede a flurry of pious Sunday morning submissions.
It’s not surprising. Similar campaigns were run during the select committee phase of the same-sex marriage bill. That bill ultimately passed because politicians could see their way to doing the right thing despite fervent and often misguided opposition. It’s my hope they’ll do the same with assisted dying.
On the 29th of August, I will be launching Lecretia’s Choice at parliament in Wellington. The Hon Nikki Kaye MP has agreed to host the evening, and it has been combined with the inaugural Lecretia Seales Memorial Lecture in Law Reform, which will be given by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC. I am really looking forward to the evening, and if you’d like to come along you’ll be very welcome. Parliament security requires all guests to have an invitation, so contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to receive one. I hope to see you there.
I’m also travelling to Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland, Melbourne and Brisbane to promote Lecretia’s Choice between the 23rd of August and the 11th of September. I’m visiting WORD Christchurch, where I’m appearing with the wonderful Caitlin Doughty, and I’m having a conversation with Andrew Denton in Melbourne at the School of Life. I’m honoured to have been invited to speak at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, which features big names like Lionel Shriver, Alexei Sayle, and Yann Martel. I’ve placed a full list of events and venues on the Lecretia’s Choice book page.
It’ll be strange to be back in New Zealand. The home that Lecretia and I shared together has new occupants, so I won’t be visiting it. I’ll be arriving in Wellington as an outsider, someone passing through, and the place is so associated with Lecretia in my mind that I predict her absence will make it unfamiliar, like a foreign land.
Although Lecretia convinced me that I wouldn’t be involved, it’s easy to see in hindsight that my involvement was inevitable. We were a team, and we made a decision to support each other in seeing this through. So that’s what we’ll do.
New Zealander of the Year
I woke to the news today that the New Zealand Herald has named Lecretia their New Zealander of the Year. It’s a surprise, given the many amazing achievements by New Zealanders this year, and especially given that Lecretia’s efforts, though supported by a majority, were very controversial.
Naturally Lecretia’s family and I are incredibly proud of Lecretia, and though none of us have any regrets about what she did, having this recognition of Lecretia’s very personal campaign is a comfort in the face of our great loss.
Christmas is going to be really difficult. For me and Lecretia’s family it is our first without her. Twelve months ago she was giving us direction on Christmas preparations, even as ill as she was: planning the menu, making sure the shopping was done, providing quality control on everything that came out of the kitchen. Christmas was Lecretia’s favourite time of year and she was very much looking forward to this one. Her nephew, whom she adored, is having his fifth Christmas and she was excited about seeing him open his presents. Her other nephew, whom she loved also, was yet to spend a Christmas with her.
Though Shirley, Lecretia’s mum, initially thought she might go a little less over the top this time around, Larry, her dad, has insisted that they don’t let standards slip. So there’ll be plenty of cooking and decorating to do, with pavlova, cheesecake, christmas ham, trifle and lots more besides.
As her husband, I find myself in a quandary. Do I spend Christmas with Lecretia’s parents and siblings, as I have done for most of the last twelve years, or do I spend it with my family, who have barely seen me since the funeral? I’m still working through that decision, but I feel a strange mix of wanting to be in three places at once while at the same time heading back overseas to lay low in a Mexican cantina on the Oaxaca coast so I can skip the whole event. Though I will always be part of Lecretia’s family, her death has catalysed a gentle reconfiguration of familial relationships that is yet to come completely to rest.
There is also the very exciting news that I’ve just this week I’ve signed a deal with Text Publishing, a highly awarded Australasian publisher, to write a book about Lecretia, which will be released some time later next year. I am very enthusiastic about the opportunity to tell more of Lecretia’s story, to share more about who she was, and to take people behind the scenes of Lecretia’s legal battle and her relationship with the media and her opponents, a fascinating side of the story with a few revelations that people are yet to hear much about. But tight deadlines mean that as much as I might want to avoid thinking about Lecretia and to try and contemplate a future without her, I’m obliged to pore over old emails and photographs and diary entries to reconstruct as much as I can of the past.
It has been a big year. Lecretia worked under the radar and with humility for her entire life but at the very peak of her illness she threw everything she had into a spectacular final act. In doing so she changed the course of my life, the lives of her family and potentially the lives of many New Zealanders for the better. And today she was recognised for that with an honour given to very few and I couldn’t be prouder of her.
But would we trade all that to spend just one more Christmas with her, provided it caused no harm or pain to her?
Absolutely we would. Without a moment’s hesitation. All of that and more.
If you’re interested in hearing more about the book’s progress, please follow Lecretia’s Choice on Twitter or like Lecretia’s Facebook page. When there are updates, including publication dates and availability, I’ll post them there.
Lastly, I need to make a personal plea on behalf of Lecretia. The public submission deadline for the Health Select Committee review of assisted dying is barely six weeks away, with submissions closing on the 1 February next year. Please make a submission. Even a short one will do.
You and the people you share this with have the power to dictate how Lecretia’s book will end. I hope I am writing a story of triumph and not a tragedy. Your submission will make a difference. You can visit this page for more information. Thank you.
A few weeks after Lecretia’s funeral, when the flowers had died and the phone calls became less frequent and the dinner invitations fewer, I found myself sitting around home a lot, drinking a bit, listening to music, doing nothing. I didn’t want pity, or sympathy, or ’to talk about it’. The only thing I wanted was the impossible – for the needle to skip a groove, to drop into a different reality from the one I was in, where Lecretia was still alive and well and with me and none of the last six months had ever happened.
I knew I was stuck and that I needed to do something. So I forced a change and I disappeared. I booked flights to the other side of the world, giving myself fewer than seven days before I left. I kept things open-ended. I started in the Baltic Sea, progressed to Denmark and Iceland, then to New York, and whilst there I chose to push my flights out and spend five wonderful weeks in Mexico, going west from Quintana Roo all the way to Mexico City. I visited places that Lecretia wanted to see, like St Petersburg and Manhattan, and visited places just for me. I was away for ten weeks in total, living out of a backpack, meeting new people and seeing new sights.
I lost weight. I grew a beard, a big ginger one. I ate at some of the world’s top restaurants, and ate street food barely fit for anyone. I swam under the midnight sun in the clear blue lake of Laugarvatn, and descended into the dormant volcano at Þríhnúkagígur. I saw the New York skyline from the Top of the Rock and watched a jazz master play the drums at the Village Vanguard in New York. I played pool in Mexican beach bars late into the night, and explored Mayan ruins in jungle thick with macaws. Some days I spent in contemplation, others I filled with activity to keep my mind from dwelling on my late wife. I spent time with good friends in New York and a few came to visit me on the coast of Mexico to laze with me on golden, deserted beaches. It was wonderful and healing, but every seemingly perfect moment was suffused with a single thought: Lecretia would have loved this. I found myself anticipating how she might react to things: fear, surprise, joy, delight.
One of the hardest things while travelling was seeing Christmas decorations. Lecretia used to love buying Christmas decorations from foreign countries. She liked the idea of decorating a Christmas tree with decorations from all over the world, and that, if she had kids, she’d be able to tell the story of where and when she bought this or that decoration. Seeing such things out there in the world – I just know how much it would have excited her. Seeing things that would make her happy, and for her no longer to be able to see them, is the thing that wounds me the most.
While travelling it seemed like Lecretia was merely in another place, out of contact, but still present somehow. It was coming home that was harder, because when I got here I felt her absence more keenly. Everything is the same, nothing has changed, except Lecretia is no longer here. And it is obvious that she is no longer here. And it hurts like hell because there’s no one I want to talk to more right now.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. But it’s only when I dwell on the sad times that I’m overcome. Most of the time I reflect on happy memories and they just bring happiness for having happened. It’s those last days that are hardest to deal with, the ones where Lecretia entered her terminal decline and we could do nothing but make her comfortable and helplessly watch. There were happy moments even in that though, when she’d smile or laugh or surprise us all by saying something, but mostly it was just unfair, unfair, unfair. I’m not angry: who or what can you be angry with? But what it feels like is a waste, how could someone so beautiful and intelligent and kind crafted over forty-two years be undone in a few short months? What would she have done with another thirty years? I wish I could have given them to her.
There’s no denying that Lecretia’s efforts have started something big. There’s a Health Select Committee enquiry underway. David Seymour has put his End of Life Choice Bill into the ballot. It has a couple of chances of being drawn before the end of the year. Along with Mr Seymour, a few other party leaders, including John Key, Andrew Little and James Shaw have expressed support for a law change, though in all cases they are speaking for themselves and not their parties.
I had a chat with someone today, a healthcare professional, who was very clearly in favour of Lecretia having the choice she wanted. Here was a person on the front lines, working with a lot of dying patients, and completely familiar with the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of palliative care, as Dr Rodney Syme calls it. They knew and felt that a patient having that choice was not going to interfere with them being able to do their job, that it’s arrogant in the extreme to deny a patient choices, and yet the organisation that purports to represent them holds a completely inconsistent view. Sadly, given the number of doctors and nurses I’ve spoken to who are supportive and would want the choice for themselves are frightened into silence for fear of being reprimanded by these associations.
It’s only when doctors or nurses find themselves in a terminal situation, such as well-respected Auckland doctor John Pollock in 2010 or Australian palliative care nurse Ray Godbold earlier this year, that they find the bravery to speak out about the choices they want. I think some of these professional associations need to take a good hard look at themselves and figure out whether they really reflect the varied views of their members and what those members would want for themselves in a terminal situation, or whether their executives are using their position as spokespeople to advance their own beliefs. If that’s the case, I hope their membership summon the bravery to recognise that and call them out. Because it really isn’t on.
I was also touched today to read the story about David Stephens in Canterbury, who is bravely speaking up about wanting some choices about the end of his life. My first wish for the courageous Mr Stephens of course is for a full recovery from his illness, and the best medical care and attention possible in support of that. But I do believe that if his illness takes a bad turn and he finds himself in a situation that is untenable to him, he absolutely should have a choice about how his life ends if he meets the necessary criteria and his wish is consistently held. Everything should be done to make Mr Stephens as comfortable as possible, to maximise the quality of life in every day he has. It sounds like he still has a lot to live for. If that’s done, he may decide that he doesn’t want or need to be assisted to die and that he’s happy to die naturally. And that would be a good outcome in some tragic circumstances. But he should still have some choice and control of his own destiny, like any of us would want.
Now that I’m back from travel I’m committed to doing what I can to help people understand why choices at end of life are important, and how empowering they are. With everything going on right now, I really am filled with hope that somehow and some way we will achieve some change. I remain optimistic.
If you’re wanting to make a submission to the select committee (please do!), I’ve collated some information about the process here. With the help of Lecretia’s fantastic legal team I’ve also put together a huge summary of all the findings and evidence in Lecretia’s case, which I hope will be a really valuable resource for people. I am so grateful to those people who have already prepared submissions, as it’s really important to do that if we’re going to see any change in the law. Please consider writing a submission.
To my disappointment, these past few weeks I haven’t been able to bring myself to write very much. Friends had suggested writing through my grief, diarising it, as a way of working through the process. But what I’m finding is that my thoughts and feelings are changing so quickly that I distrust whatever I write down when I come to reread it, and I fear that whatever I write won’t do justice to Lecretia’s memory, or that it is too self-centred or earnest. No matter how aggrieved or full of self-pity I might feel, the magnitude of my wife’s loss is infinite in comparison with mine.
The morning Lecretia passed, and I had to front up to the cameras that day for a press conference we had planned a few days prior, I was in shock. I’m not sure what carried me through. And that was followed by a week of planning, and decisions, and logistics, as we arranged for Lecretia’s funeral and her interment. I barely had time to process anything. I felt numb.
Since then I have been at home, catching up with friends occasionally, but otherwise keeping my own company. I am intending to go through Lecretia’s belongings, but I keep putting it off. Her beautiful face is still everywhere, anyway. She’s inescapable, and I do not want to escape her. Her mother and father visited me and took away some of her clothes and jewelry, which is a relief of sorts. I did wonder whether being here alone would make me want to move. Yet it still feels like home, and I still feel connected to her here.
The strange thing is how at peace I feel. After the years of worrying about Lecretia and what might happen to her, and the sorrow at seeing her rapid decline, and dealing with her hearing, and her passing, and her funeral, and the ancillary but compounding concerns of work and travel and money, everything has now come to a rest state. I can relate to C.S Lewis, when he describes his experience in A Grief Observed:
“… grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”
Interestingly I found his loss of faith, which felt honest and raw, more convincing than its reclamation, which felt like calculus.
It’s only now that I am beginning to really come to terms with what losing Lecretia means, and how much she was so foundational to who I’ve become over these past twelve years. With her gone, there is this massive absence, and things that I was so sure of, and that I took for granted, are no longer there. I keep reaching out to latch on to assumptions about life I thought I could be sure of, and find that what I thought was firm and solid ground has given way to an abyss.
All those things that Lecretia meant to me, I am still attached to. They abide in me like hunger and thirst. And when I try and draw sustenance from the same places, out of habit, there’s now nothing. I know that I will need to find things to fulfill those needs somehow – the physical, the mental, the social, the romantic – but I know it’s months or more likely years before that will happen. For now I’ll have to endure this hunger and emptiness and it will always be a feature of who I am. I’ve spoken to a few people who have lost partners and they say similar things. It takes time, and it gets easier, they say, but it never really goes away.
There is this strange sense that I am not mourning often enough, or deeply enough. That the intensity of my grief should be a perfect reflection of the passion I had for my wife. That I have short-changed her memory somehow, ridiculously, by not being utterly inconsolable for weeks on end. But the loss is felt in moments – as sudden pangs or vertiginous stumbles – and then they pass. It’s sorrow but equally a profound sense of unfairness.
And then again:
“… this separation, I suppose, waits for all. I have been thinking of H. and myself as peculiarly unfortunate in being torn apart. But presumably all lovers are.”
The injustice, if there was one, was not the passing itself, which was inevitable, but the timing, which was too soon. I feel for Lecretia’s parents most of all, as although all lovers must inevitably part, children almost always survive their parents, and that didn’t happen this time. And what an extraordinary expression of their love Lecretia was. How great their sense of loss must be.
I am not sure what comes next. I feel unsettled. I think I want to disappear for a while, perhaps visit some of the places that Lecretia had wanted to visit, but I don’t feel like I can until I get Lecretia’s affairs in order, which I have begun to do. I have known people to become reckless and irresponsible with their lives through grief. I don’t feel like that’s going to happen to me. I carry her with me now, and at the moment I feel like I have a duty to honour her memory by being my best self. But I am not out of this process yet, and I think I have some way to go. There is much to do.
Statement Made at Press Conference – 5 June 2015
Here’s the full text of the verbal statement I made to the press today, in response to Justice Collins’ judgment.
Thank you for coming today.
I wish it were Lecretia here today talking to you instead of me. Her fine legal mind would do a better job of interpreting Justice Collins’ judgment for you, and explaining his ruling. Her natural tact and grace would be better suited to delivering her feelings on the ruling. No matter how strong her view one way or the other, she would approach it in an understated way and with humility. But most of all, I wish Lecretia were here today talking to you because it would mean she was still alive. She died too young. She is hugely missed already and her family and friends feel an unbearable loss. She was a treasured wife, sister, daughter, aunt, and friend. She was an incredible lawyer, and an incredible person. We will miss her terribly.
When Lecretia began down this path, she did so in her typically understated style. After watching a documentary on Terry Pratchett late last year, who sought death with dignity before he lost his mind to Alzheimer’s, she sent a note to her friends describing the positive frame of mind she was in regarding her upcoming chemo, and included a link to the video, saying “I may become active in this area.” Earlier this year she contacted Andrew Butler at Russell McVeagh and asked if he would be willing to represent her. That was when her case began.
Lecretia knew that with her brain cancer’s growth being unpredictable there was a risk she might suffer before she died under conditions unbearable to her. She wanted to be able to choose to die at a time and manner of her own choosing, with the assistance of a physician. She wanted to squeeze out as much value and quality of her life as she possibly could, before she entered a phase of no quality, and of no value to her. In order to do that, she would need a doctor’s help to die.
She knew that under New Zealand law, there was an assumption this was unlawful, but that it was untested in criminal law, and that the law could be viewed as ambiguous on this issue. Parliament had refused to deal with assisted dying in the past, so, inspired by the successful case of Carter v Canada, she sought to achieve her ends through the High Court.
Lecretia sought a ruling in two parts. She wanted the High Court to declare that assisted dying was not unlawful under the Crimes Act, and that her physician would not be prosecuted if they helped her to die. This ruling was the only thing that could help her achieve the death she wanted within her lifetime without a parliamentary law change. If that were not possible, she sought a declaration that the Crimes Act was inconsistent with her rights and fundamental freedoms. This wouldn’t change the law, and it wouldn’t help her in her own circumstances, but she knew it might help compel Parliament to change the law and help others in future, who find themselves in a similar situation to Lecretia. After all, what happened to Lecretia could happen to me, or to you, or to someone you love. It could happen to anyone.
Justice Collins provided an interim results judgment on the first part – the Crimes Act interpretation – on Tuesday so that Lecretia could be aware of the outcome and know whether she might lawfully access physician assisted dying. Sadly, Justice Collins declared in that interim judgment that a physician helping Lecretia to die in accordance with her wishes would continue to risk prosecution.
On Tuesday night I relayed Justice Collin’s decision to Lecretia. I explained she would not be able to seek assistance to die, and nature would need to run its course, and that her mother and I would do everything we could to make her comfortable and pain free. We would accede to the wishes she had laid out in her Advance Directive and act out her wishes in accordance with the law.
Lecretia listened to me as I explained the decision. Even though she couldn’t speak, she was able to share her feelings through her expression. There was no mistaking her response. She was hurt and disappointed. She fixed me with a stare with her good eye as if to say: isn’t this my body? My life? Her breath slowed and she turned her head away. Her reaction utterly broke my heart.
Our hope turned to the second ruling – a declaration of inconsistency with Lecretia’s rights and fundamental freedoms under the Bill of Rights. As stated, this would not help Lecretia, but in future, it might help others.
We have received that ruling in the judgment today and we are grateful for the efforts made by Justice Collins to release his decision so quickly. We are also grateful to the legal team who brought Lecretia’s case to this point, and to the Crown and the interveners for their contributions to the case. And as the debate has also played out in the media, we’re thankful that even those that didn’t share Lecretia’s views engaged in a robust and civil discourse which, though spirited, didn’t once descend into the personal. We were delighted to find ourselves in the midst of a mature and passionate debate, even as we vigorously disagreed on most things.
We are dismayed by Justice Collin’s judgment. In some ways, I am relieved that Lecretia was unconscious and unresponsive when we received it, so she didn’t have to hear the news. Justice Collins found in our favour in relation to the evidence before him, but his interpretation of the purpose of the law meant he could not find aid in dying was available to Lecretia nor could he find that not having access to aid in dying was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.
Justice Collins found that while palliative care had made great advances, it was not able to relieve all suffering, including for pain and psychological and emotional suffering. He emphasised the importance of individual autonomy and dignity. He found that Lecretia was not vulnerable and that her wish to have access to assisted dying was, quote “a rational and intellectually rigorous response to her circumstances” unquote. He said it was important to ensure doctors did not make a decision based on their assumptions about people’s vulnerability as this would devalue respect for individual autonomy. He found that without assisted dying Lecretia was put at risk of premature death through suicide, for fear that she would be incapable of doing so when her condition deteriorated, which engaged her right to life. He accepted evidence that, under the status quo, others who are terminally ill have taken their lives prematurely while they were still able to, robbing them of a longer life.
Yet despite these findings, and acknowledgement of the potential suffering and risk of early death for those with a terminal illness, Justice Collins felt unable to grant the declarations Lecretia sought. A core reason was that, in his view, the provisions under the Crimes Act required protection of not only the vulnerable, but even for people like Lecretia, who are not vulnerable, and whose wish for assisted dying was a rational response to their terminal illness and potential suffering. He did so, based on his understanding of the New Zealand case law and notwithstanding that that approach to the law is not shared in other jurisdictions including the UK, Canada and South Africa. For us, as a family, it is terribly disappointing that the Judge was prepared to go as far as he did but not take this last crucial step.
The judgment has starkly highlighted that the status quo is far from ideal; that people are at risk of intolerable suffering and are at risk of ending their lives earlier than they would otherwise. Although we did not get the rulings we sought, the judgment is very clear: the law as it is, is paternalistic, overly-protective and rooted in the past. It is not the law as it ought to be.
Justice Collins was clear that it is for Parliament to address a change in the law. Through Lecretia’s efforts we now know the law. So Parliament now knows what has to change.
The New Zealand parliament has twice voted down assisted dying legislation introduced via private member’s bill at the first reading, once in 1995 and again in 2003, preventing the proposed legislation from getting to select committee stage where the facts and overseas evidence could be exhaustively reviewed. This issue has not been given a fair hearing in parliament. In effect, New Zealand’s politicians have twice voted not to have a debate properly informed by the findings of a select committee. At the present time, there is no assisted dying bill proposed by the government or in the members’ bills ballot.
Support for the legalisation of physician assisted dying in New Zealand has been consistently shown to be between 70-80% of the New Zealand public by various polls.
That support has been reflected by the number of messages and good wishes Lecretia has received. We have received hundreds of messages from people from all walks of life and all political persuasions, supporting Lecretia’s cause. We have had messages from doctors and palliative care professionals and nurses offering their support but afraid to speak out for fear of angering their employers. We have had dozens of stories from people who have lost loved ones in awful circumstances and under substandard care – people who have needlessly suffered in the gap between palliative care’s rhetoric and its reality. We have had messages from young people who had never considered the issues before, but now have no doubt that this law needs to be addressed.
In the end, Lecretia was fortunate that her death happened quickly, and that she was cared for by some very fine health professionals from hospice and DHB. Others are not so lucky. Lecretia believed those people should have choices, and that the law should respect those choices and not tell competent, rational adults that they don’t know their own mind. She would not support a law change that endangers the vulnerable. She would support heavy penalties for those that would attempt to coerce or exploit the vulnerable. But she believed it is possible for a law to be crafted that protects the vulnerable, while not being overly protective of those who wish to make fully-informed choices about the end of their life.
Let’s not give into fears and speculation and say it’s too hard. Let’s not say the risks are too great. We can learn from other countries – we do not need to panic over sensational stories from opponents – we do not have to copy those countries outright. But let’s not say people must suffer against their will because we’re afraid of change. It’s not impossible. We are not a nation of cynics. We are a nation of dreamers and we are free to have a vision and to build the nation we want. Lecretia and I are optimists. We believe the law can be shaped to do what we all want it to do.
We must respect the autonomy and dignity of terminally ill people like Lecretia and say yes, we respect your wish to go your way. Anything else is paternalistic. Anything else says I know better than you. We do not have the unique perspective of the one dying. We can empathise with their suffering, but we cannot truly know it. None of us living has died before. None of us is an authority. None of us has all the answers. I say – let the person who is dying choose the manner in which they die. If they request help, and a doctor agrees to help, who are we to have laws to stand in the way of that compassionate act? The intent of both parties is to end suffering. It just so happens that sometimes, when that suffering is so great, the only release from that suffering is death. That is not murder. That is not suicide. That is mercy.
I am calling on our 51st parliament to work across party lines to bring together a select committee to work through the issues and to hear from the public. The public reaction to Lecretia’s case has been huge. I am calling on our elected representatives to have the courage to debate this issue, to show a quantum of the courage my wife has shown these past months. I implore our Prime Minister, who only two weeks ago said publically that he would welcome a debate – to actually initiate that debate and to not defer it and wait for a private member’s bill which may not see it debated for months or years. This debate needs to happen now. Prime Minister, I urge you to give the public what they want and start the debate. I urge you to follow my wife’s example and to be a courageous leader. I urge you to lead on this issue. It is long overdue. Now is the time. Let us give Lecretia her legacy.
Lecretia Seales, 1973-2015
Lecretia passed away this morning at 12:35am from natural causes. I am unable to express my feelings right now. A few weeks ago, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, 33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand and legendary law reformer, sent me this tribute he wrote for Lecretia. I had been saving it for the right time. This might be it.
I have known Lecretia for many years from the time she first came to work at Chen & Palmer after working as a lawyer in the UK. She was by then a seasoned lawyer having cut her teeth at Kensington Swan before taking her OE. I am not an easy person to work with, as I am impatient and demanding. I soon found that Lecretia was incredibly industrious and not to put to fine a point on it, a workaholic. I found her easy to work with and I came to trust her accuracy, her judgment, and her discretion. She is my kind of public lawyer.
Later when I went to the Law Commission she applied for a job there and was top of the field and selected. She made a wonderful contribution at the Commission and worked directly to me on several important projects including alcohol and war pensions both of which reached the statute books. Her terrier like qualities in running down the meaning of words in old statutes was awe inspiring. I recall particularly her work on section 17 of the War Pensions Act 1954. I did not believe it was possible to say what that provision meant, but after three weeks Lecretia figured it out. All the administrative law work on the alcohol project was hers.
Lecretia became not only my professional colleague but also my friend. I recall Matt and Lecretia visited us in Nelson and said they were going to get married. What a wonderful couple. A little much wine was drunk that night. Lecretia is an incredibly private person. She never sought the spotlight. And she is extraordinarily taciturn. But deep down there is a person of great compassion, empathy and judgment. Lecretia has got to be one of finest human beings I have ever met. When her sickness struck she bore it with a fortitude and steadfastness that was amazing. Her idea to turn her experience into a law reform project was typical of her. What a brilliant idea. She always thinks of others first. She never complains. I salute her.