High Court Rejects British Woman's Plea to 'Die with Dignity'

Published October 18th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Britain's High Court on Thursday rejected a paralysed British woman's right to die with the help of her husband in a landmark euthanasia case, dealing a huge blow to Britain's pro-euthanasia lobby. 

The court ruled that the husband of Diane Pretty, 42, a woman left terminally ill by a degenerating nervous disease, would not be exempt from criminal prosecution if he helps her commit suicide. 

The case of Pretty, a motor neuron disease sufferer, was the first in which British courts were asked to rule on the principle of the legality of an assisted suicide, according to legal experts. 

The Netherlands became the first country to legalise euthanasia earlier this year. 

The High Court told Pretty it would not be appropriate for her to contest the ruling, but her husband Brian said they would nevertheless take their fight to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court of law. 

"Having regard to the fact that we have said that the conclusion we have reached is inescapable we don't think it's appropriate to give leave to appeal," said Justice Tuckey, speaking on behalf of the three sitting judges. 

"Deliberate killing, even with consent and in the most pitiable of circumstances, is murder: the mandatory penalty is life (maximum 14 years) imprisonment," he added. 

"We are being asked to allow a family member to help a loved one die, in circumstances of which we know nothing, in a way of which we know nothing, and with no continuing scrutiny by any outside person." 

Brian Pretty, interpreting for his wife, who can hardly speak, told reporters outside court that she was "disappointed and very angry because she feels that she has got a right to do what she feels is right." 

"We are going to take it to the House of Lords which Diane wants to do and she's going to carry on fighting," he said, with his wife by his side in a wheelchair. 

Pretty, who was backed by the civil rights organisations Liberty and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), argued that by refusing her the right to "die with dignity," the government was subjecting her to inhuman and degrading treatment, breaching the Human Rights Act. 

The mother-of-two says her health has deteriorated so quickly that she can barely do anything for herself and needs the help of her husband of 25 years to end her life. 

VES said that despite the ruling, the case had brought about a greater understanding of the issues involved. 

"This case has brought about a shift in the way that the issues of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are discussed," VES director Deborah Annetts said. 

A Liberty spokesman said that the organisation did not feel that the court had acknowledged the difference between Diane's "exceptional circumstances" and the broader protection needed in the case of suicide. 

"Diane is not in need of protection," the spokesman said. 

But anti-euthanasia campaigners hailed the court's decision as a "victory for common sense". 

Michael Howitt-Wilson, deputy chairman of pressure group Alert, said: "For the court to give a decision the other way would have made the whole sanctity of life look ridiculous. 

"It would have made the right to life an impossibility. If one has the right not to be killed, to give somebody immunity against killing would make a nonsense of that." 

Pretty, from Bedfordshire, southern England, was diagnosed in 1999 with the untreatable disease which affects about seven people in every 100,000, leaving sufferers to die in most cases within three to five years. 

The couple's children, Clara, 24, and Brian, 22, support their mother's decision. 

In April, the Dutch senate passed a law allowing mercy killings, making the Netherlands the first country to legalise it, although the practice has been tolerated there for many years. The law comes into effect in January -- London, (AFP)  

 

 

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