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Why is assisted suicide illegal now?

The first principle of criminal law in New Zealand is to protect human life. The law currently prohibits both assisting someone to commit suicide and murder.

In 2015, Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales tested New Zealand’s laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia. Believing that she would soon die from a brain tumour, she asked the Court three questions:

  1. Could her doctor prescribe her a lethal drug or inject her with a lethal drug to end her life without being liable for criminal prosecution – that is, would it be legal?

    If it wouldn’t be legal for her doctor to end her life,

  2. didn’t that infringe Seales’ right to life? or

  3. didn’t that infringe Seales’ right not to be subject to cruel, degrading or disproportionate treatment?

Justice Collins decided that the law was very clear: if Seales’ doctor prescribed her lethal drugs to end her life, the doctor would be criminally liable for assisting in suicide. If her doctor injected Seales with lethal drugs, the doctor would be criminally liable for murder. He said that New Zealand law was very clear that it was never appropriate to take someone’s life intentionally or to encourage or enable their suicide.

On the question of whether this very clear law against taking human life infringed Seales’ right to life, Justice Collins found that an argument could be made that it did. If Seales couldn’t get her doctor to end her life, he said, she might decide to commit suicide by herself at some point before she lost the capacity to do so, and thereby possibly lose some days, weeks, or months of life. But, he went on to say, this limitation on Seales’ right to life was appropriate as the laws against assisting in suicide and murder were there to protect all human life – making those things legal could endanger many other people’s lives.

Regarding the right not to be subject to cruel, degrading or disproportionate treatment, Justice Collins found that rather than this right being infringed, the treatment the state was offering Seales was compassionate and kind. Seales’ disease, while tragic and debilitating, was not caused by the state. The treatment the state offered Seales was palliative care. He concluded that the law against allowing Seales’ doctor to help her end her life was not cruel, degrading or disproportionate.

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