UK Euthanasia Battle Continues In Courts

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London ( - The British House of Lords will review a decision barring the husband of a terminally ill woman from helping her to commit suicide.

The argument made by Brian and Diane Pretty was rejected two weeks ago by Britain's High Court. The Prettys petitioned the Lords, and an appeal was granted Thursday. A three-judge panel will likely hear the case within two weeks.

Diane Pretty, 42, has motor neurone disease, a degenerative condition. She is paralyzed from the neck down and can only speak via her husband or mechanical aids.

The case, the first of its kind in Britain, started when Perry asked for assurances from the Director of Public Prosecutions that her husband would not be put on trial if he helped her to die.

In Britain, assisting a suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but prosecutors have discretion over whether to file charges in individual cases.

Prosecutor David Calvert-Smith declined to rule out filing criminal charges against Mr. Perry, so the couple filed suit, claiming that denying Mrs. Perry the opportunity to commit suicide was a breach of her human rights.

The High Court rejected that argument, saying that they felt "desperately sorry" for the couple but that no one had the human right to "procure their own death."

A group of specially selected Law Lords may review High Court decisions in certain cases. In announcing the decision to take the case, justice Lord Bingham said: "We are conscious of the fact it raises issues with which the courts in this country have not had a previous occasion to deal with."

Pro-lifers optimistic

Pro-life campaigners weren't dismayed by the decision by the Law Lords to hear the case. Andy Berry, spokesman for anti-euthanasia campaign Alert, said Thursday he was "delighted" to hear that the case would be tried in front of the Lords.

"I hope that the Lords will have as much common sense as the previous judges," Berry said by phone. "We continue to believe Mrs. Pretty is wrong in her attempt to be killed by her husband."

Alert is one of several organizations backing the government in the case. Berry said that the group is "hopeful" that the Lords will reaffirm the High Court decision. If the Law Lords rule against the Prettys, they could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but Berry said he was skeptical about the case getting that far, due to European human rights legislation that protects life.

"It would be interesting to see on what basis the case could go to the European Court," Berry said.

Also backing the government in the case is the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. SPUC general secretary Paul Tully said in a statement Thursday that a judgement in favor of the Perrys would have a detrimental effect on British society and the care of patients.

"Those backing Mrs Pretty are determined to undermine the right to life of severely disabled people in order to promote the cause of medical killing," Tully said. "It is vital that this case is seen in the wider context of the pressures which might be brought to bear on handicapped people to opt for death."

The Prettys are being represented by a group of organizations led by the UK-based Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Society representatives were unavailable for comment Thursday.\fs23