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U.K.: British Woman Loses Right-To-Die Case At European Court Of Human Rights

  • Alexandra Poolos

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected a British woman's appeal to be allowed to commit suicide with her husband's help. The woman, who is terminally ill and paralyzed from the neck down, appealed to the European Court after Britain's highest court ruled her husband would not be immune from prosecution if he assists his wife's suicide. Her lawyers claimed British laws infringed on the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment. But the European Court found the right to life guaranteed in the convention does not include the right to take one's own life.

Prague, 30 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Diane Pretty, a terminally ill mother of two, lost the final round of a long legal battle yesterday when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that she does not have the right to kill herself with her husband's help.

Pretty suffers from motor-neuron disease, a degenerative and irreversible condition that has left her paralyzed from the neck down. Although she would be permitted to take her own life under British law, Pretty's husband, Brian Pretty, could be prosecuted if he assisted her. Pretty's disease renders her unable to commit suicide without another person's help.

Under current British law, helping a person commit suicide carries a maximum 14-year jail sentence.

Pretty's lawyers argued at the European Court of Human Rights that refusing Pretty help in doing what she would have the right to do if she were physically able amounts to discrimination on the basis of her disability.

Roderick Liddell, a spokesman for the European Court of Human Rights, says Pretty's lawyers argued that the British court's refusal to free Pretty's husband from fear of legal action infringed on the couple's rights under five articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

"Mrs. Pretty said that the refusal -- the refusal to give the undertaking not to prosecute her husband -- gave rise to a number of violations [on] the European Convention of Human Rights. She relied on five separate articles of the convention. These were the right to life protected by Article 2; the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment protected by Article 3; Article 8, which protects the right to respect for private life; freedom of thought and conscience protected by Article 9; and the prohibition on discrimination, which is protected by Article 14," Liddell said.

Liddell said, however, that the European court found that the right to die is not part of the convention on the right to life.

"The court said that in respect to the right to life, the text of the convention and its own case law on this issue places the emphasis very clearly on the need to protect human life, on a positive obligation on the part of a state to take measures to ensure that people in difficult situations, vulnerable people, were protected from having their life taken by someone else. And that it was impossible to read into that provision and into that case law a right to die, a right of someone else to take a person's life," Liddell said.

The right to die has been a hotly contested topic in Europe. Almost two years ago, Heather Pratten of Britain helped her son, Nigel, who was suffering from a degenerative brain condition, take his own life. On his 42nd birthday, Nigel took a dose of heroin and fell into a coma. His mother held a pillow over his face to ensure his death. A court convicted Pratten, but British authorities freed her for humanitarian reasons.

While this case offered hope that Pretty's husband, Brian, would also not be forced to serve prison time for a potential assisted-suicide conviction, Pretty does not want her husband to knowingly breach the law. Instead, she wants the law changed.

After yesterday's ruling, Pretty spoke to a news conference with the help of a computer-aided voice program and criticized the current law.

"The law has taken all my rights away," Diane Pretty said.

For Pretty's husband, the outcome of the trial was cause for mixed emotions.

"I am pleased in one respect because it means that have my wife is with me for a little bit longer. But I am very, very saddened because the one thing she wants to have is that choice of whether she wants to live or die, at a time of her choosing. This has, in fact, been denied her, and that is not right because we all should have a choice with what to do with our lives, even if it is [committing suicide]," Brian Pretty said.

The Strasbourg ruling arrives a month after the High Court in London ruled that a British woman who was also paralyzed from the neck down -- known only as "Miss B" -- could order an end to the medical intervention that was keeping her alive. The case was the first in which a person with full mental capabilities had petitioned for an end to medical life support. "Miss B" died yesterday after being taken off life support.

Mona Arshi, a lawyer representing Diane Pretty, said the two cases are very similar. She called the British High Court ruling "odd," saying that her client should also be able to choose how she dies.

Pretty will enjoy the same right to refuse treatment once she is hooked up to life-support machines. Her condition is likely to lead to respiratory failure within months. Pretty has already said she will refuse ventilator treatment when she can no longer breath on her own.

Until that time, Pretty says she will continue to fight for her right to die the way she wants. She has three months to appeal the European court's decision, but has not indicated whether she will do so. In the meantime, she has established a website to petition the British Parliament to allow her husband to help her die without fear of prosecution.

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