British Woman Loses Final 'Right To Die' Appeal

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - A terminally ill British woman who argued that she had a "right to die" lost her final appeal in the European Court of Human Rights on Monday.

The court ruled that British authorities did not violate the rights of Diane Pretty when they refused to guarantee her husband immunity from prosecution if he were to assist her in committing suicide.

Pretty, 43, is suffering from motor neurone disease, a degenerative condition that has paralyzed her and robbed her of the ability to speak without a computer. Her appeals were consistently turned down by the British courts.

After the House of Lords ruled against her last November, she took her case to the European court, arguing that preventing her from seeking assistance in committing suicide amounted to "inhuman or degrading treatment" on the part of the British government.

Pretty's lawyers also argued that a "right to life" as enshrined in European law also implies a "right to die." The court flatly rejected this argument.

Although assisting suicide is legal or tolerated in several other European countries, in Britain it is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Speaking at a press conference after the verdict was announced, Pretty's husband admitted mixed feelings about the decision.

"I am pleased in one respect because I have my wife with me a little longer but I am very sad because her choice on when she should die has been taken away from her," Brian Pretty said.

Speaking with the aid of a computerized voice synthesizer, Mrs. Pretty said: "The law has taken all my rights away."

Legislation supported

Pretty's case was supported by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. At a press conference after the verdict, VES director Deborah Annetts said U.K. assisted suicide laws were the "most repressive" in Europe.

"Research also shows that U.K. law fails to protect the vulnerable. There are an estimated 25,000 cases of non-voluntary euthanasia each year," Annetts said. "We call on Parliament to consider this research and put in place a proper law which gives people like Diane the right to choose a medically assisted death."

A spokesman for Liberty, which provided Pretty's legal representation, also advocated legislation.

"We believe that the government has the opportunity to remedy the defects in the current law which placed Diane and others in such a terrible trap," the spokesman said.

Pro-life campaigners

Andy Berry, a spokesman for anti-euthanasia group Alert, welcomed the decision and said his organization was ready to argue against the introduction of pro-euthanasia legislation in Britain.

"I wish I could say the fight is over, but I think it has just begun," he said. "I hope now that she (Pretty) will get the support that she needs to help her through this difficult time."

A coalition of pro-life groups including the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) also supported the government's argument in the case.

"The coalition had serious concerns that the case could undermine the lives of vulnerable people and lead to the practice of euthanasia," the SPUC said in a release. "The coalition ... has warmly welcomed today's unanimous judgement."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that he has no plans to try to change U.K. law on assisted suicide.

See Earlier Story:
Assisted Suicide Case Goes to Highest European Court (March 19, 2002)

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