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U.K.: England -- And Europe -- Grapple With Right To Die

Prague, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European countries adamantly condemn the United States, China, and other countries that impose the death penalty, even in the case of heinous crimes. This week, however, Britain -- and, by extension, Europe -- are struggling with issues permitting people to bring about their own deaths.

The High Court in London ruled today that a British woman paralyzed from the neck down must be allowed to order an end to medical intervention that is keeping her alive. She's a 43-year-old social worker who has remained anonymous because of privacy laws. After bedside hearings in March, the patient received the decision by video link.

News reports from London called the ruling a landmark, saying the case is the first in which a person with full mental faculties has petitioned for an end to medical life support. In previous cases, representatives have asked courts to permit switching off life support for people in comas, or vegetative states.

Inevitably, reporters linked her case to that of another British woman, Diane Pretty. The European Court of Human Rights held a special urgent hearing this week on Pretty's appeal for legal permission for her husband to help her commit suicide.

Alex Gask of the British human rights organization Liberty is one of the lawyers working on behalf of Pretty and her husband. He says that Diane Pretty's case is only superficially related to either the death penalty or terminating artificial life support devices.

"Diane's case is about her choice, and the fact that she should have a choice to be able to die with dignity and die at the time of her choosing with her family around her, rather than having to endure the frightening final stages of the illness that she is suffering from," Gask says.

The Netherlands last year adopted a national voluntary euthanasia law -- making the first nation in the world to do so, according to the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Proponents of the law cited as one reason for its adoption the fact that authorities commonly looked the other way as many physicians assisted patients to end their own lives. The proponents argued that it would be better to bring the practice out in the open under strict controls.

The Western state of Oregon in the United States also has adopted a law permitting assisted suicide. In Australia, one state adopted such a law but was subsequently overruled by the national government.

Liberty's Gask says that a number of other countries around the world tacitly allow assisted suicide:

"The countries where assisted suicide is not unlawful include The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden, and also Finland," Gask says.

In England, Heather Pratten, who helped her son Nigel to die in October 2000, publicly endorsed the subject of today's court ruling. As Pratten puts it: "I have every sympathy with her and understand how she feels."

Nigel Pratten was suffering from the degenerative brain condition Huntington's Disease when, on his 42nd birthday, he took a dose of heroin and sank into a coma. Pratten said she held a pillow over his face to assure he died. A court convicted her but British authorities discharged her on humanitarian grounds.

Gask says that Diane Pretty and her husband are seeking to remain within the law: "Diane and her husband respect the law and they wish to be on the correct side of the law and to do what the law bids. They don't want to be seen as breaching that. And therefore they decided to go through the court system to challenge the law as it currently stands, so that they did not need to be in breach of it."

Diane Pretty's appeal to the British courts was for a promise from the prosecutor's office that her husband would not be prosecuted if he helped her to commit suicide. Through her lawyers, she says that the nerve disease from which she suffers renders her unable without outside help to commit suicide -- which is not a crime in Britain.

One of the arguments put forward on her behalf is that refusing her help in doing what she would have every right to do if she were able amounts to discrimination because of her disability.