New Zealand Trial of Euthanasia Advocate Who Killed Mom Almost Done

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 31, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

New Zealand Trial of Euthanasia Advocate Who Killed Mom Almost Done

by Maria Gallagher Editor
March 31, 2004

Wellington, New Zealand ( — Lawyers for euthanasia advocate Lesley Martin are trying to turn the focus away from their client’s alleged attempts to kill her mother and toward the inadequate care the dying woman received from her doctors.

The 40-year-old Martin is standing trial in New Zealand on two counts of attempting to murder her mother, Joy Patricia Martin, in May 1999. She later admitted the deed in a book advocating assisted suicide.

The case is now going to the jury.

Last week, defense witness Roderick Duncan MacLeod, a professor at the University of Otago Medical School and an expert in the care of the terminally ill, told the court that Joy Martin received substandard care from her family doctor and the surgeon who treated her bowel cancer.

MacLeod faulted the medical team for failing to hold a conference about her care before she was discharged from Wanganui Hospital. She died a month after her release.

The 69-year-old Martin had been diagnosed with secondary cancer in her liver and had almost died of complications following an earlier surgery.

MacLeod indicated the hospital had made a critical error in waiting 18 days to notify Mrs. Martin’s physician, Dr. Bevan Chilcott, that she had been sent home. The medical professor also criticized Dr. Chilcott for failing to call Mrs. Martin after he did receive word that she had been released from the hospital.

Still, observers say that Martin’s daughter had no justification for trying to kill her.

Brian Johnston, author of the book Death as a Salesman, told earlier in the trial, "I’ve been at numerous deathbeds and I know the emotions that surround suffering and death. I also know that there are better answers than killing these vulnerable patients."

The Martin case has attracted international attention, raising new questions about the medical community’s response to the pro-euthanasia movement.

Martin’s daughter has gone so far as to celebrate her role in trying to cause her mother’s death, publishing a book in which she states that she attempted to end her mother’s life by administering morphine and smothering her the next day.

Wales University psychology professor Richard Owens, testifying in the trial, said Lesley Martin may have suffered from memory distortion and that, as a result, her book might not be a reliable account of what actually went on.

The defense suggests that the accused might have distorted her remembrance of events in order to relieve a psychological conflict between her promise to her mother and her beliefs about euthanasia.

Lesley Martin had pledged that she would prevent her mother from undergoing a slow and painful death.

The case against Lesley Martin is based on what she told a hospice nurse about the morphine injection, her talks with police, along with the recollections included in her book, To Die Like a Dog.

The defense suggests that Lesley Martin was experiencing stress and exhaustion and was incapable of forming the intention to kill.

Owens said cognitive dissonance could cause someone to "come to believe that their motives were different to those they had at the time."

As a result, Owens believes that Lesley Martin attempted to resolve the conflict in her mind by taking "an action that would end the suffering but not in fact kill her and then convince herself that she had at least attempted to do so."

Euthanasia has been a contentious issue in New Zealand, where pro-euthanasia forces have attempted to make inroads.

Writing last year in the New Zealand Herald, columnist Garth George decried the push toward euthanasia, likening it to the campaign to legalize abortion.

"After suffering for weeks in the terminal stages of brain cancer, my brother died surrounded by his family, including a 2 ½-year-old grandson and toddler granddaughter and a number of lifetime intimate friends," George wrote.

"It was an experience none of them would have sought and had she been able to my sister-in-law would have ended her husband’s suffering days before he finally gave up the ghost.

"Yet you won’t find any of them voting for mercy killing. They understand that the mystery of death–like the mystery of conception–is best left to God," George ended.