Woman Brings First 'Right To Die' Case Under Human Rights Law

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London (CNSNews.com) - A British woman suffering from motor neurone disease (known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) launched a landmark legal battle Monday for the right to take her life.

Diane Pretty argues that recently introduced human rights legislation grants her the right to be free from inhumane and degrading treatment. The Human Rights Act also protects the privacy of family life without interference from public authorities, the 42-year-old mother of two maintains.

Her husband, Brian, wants the prosecuting authorities to assure him that he will not face prosecution if he helps her to commit suicide. Last week, prosecutors refused to rule out bringing criminal charges against him if he does so.

Mrs. Pretty, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in 1999, is physically unable to take her life without assistance. Her children, both in their early 20s, say they support her decision.

The documents being presented today will be considered by a judge, who will then decide whether the submission can go ahead.

If their application succeeds, it could set a precedent that will allow many other sufferers of terminal disease end their lives prematurely. Earlier this year Mrs. Pretty wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair urging him to change the current law.

MND (known by different names in different countries) is a degenerative disease affecting nerve cells along which the brain sends instructions to the muscles.

"It's a nasty disease," a spokesperson for Britain's Motor Neurone Disease Association, Gayle Sweet, said Monday. "People will eventually not be able to move or talk or eat properly themselves, but their brain will remain intact throughout, so the intellect is unaffected - which makes it particularly hard because obviously they are aware of everything that is going on around them."

Sweet said the MND Association has not taken a stand on euthanasia, however, "because it's not what our role is as an association."

"We neither support nor oppose euthanasia because we feel it is a decision for individuals," she said. "We obviously sympathise with Mrs. Pretty and her family and are saddened to hear she feels she no longer has a quality of life worth living."

Although the average life expectancy from the onset of symptoms to death is 2-5 years, some patients live up to 10 or even 20 years, she said.

Stephen Hawkings, the famous astrophysicist, has MND. He has lived with it for more than 30 years.

Asked about pain or discomfort suffered by patients, Sweet said: "With the right care, discomfort should be kept minimal."

The Pretty's case is being backed by a group lobbying for euthanasia, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), and a human rights organization, Liberty.

Mona Arshi, a lawyer for Liberty, said the case was about Pretty's "right to live and die with dignity."

"It seems terribly unfair that Mr. Pretty could be exposed to criminal liability in this way simply for trying to carry out his wife's wish to have a dignified end to her life."

VES director Deborah Annetts accused the authorities of condemning the woman to "extreme physical and mental suffering ...their failure to act is an act of inhumanity."

But an ethics expert with the British Medical Association, Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, told UK radio while she sympathized with the Pretty's plight, she doubted they would succeed.

"The law in the UK says you cannot help people to die and it equates this with murder," Nathanson said. "It does that for good reason, because it is always very difficult to tell after the event if somebody genuinely wanted to die or whether in fact they were killed."

According to Ursula Smartt, law lecturer in law at Thames Valley University in London, deliberate euthanasia would normally lead to murder charges against anyone who helps the patient.

Liability can be reduced to the lesser offense of "manslaughter" on the basis of diminished responsibility, however.

Earlier this year, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia. Belgian lawmakers will soon try to follow the Dutch lead, in the face of opposition Christian Democrats who have vowed to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights if a euthanasia law passes in their country.

Ironically, the UK law being cited by the Pretty's and their backers is based on the same European rights convention, which the European Court of Human Rights is empowered to uphold.

The Human Rights Act became law in Britain last fall.

See also:
Pro-Lifers Unhappy About Life-Or-Death Guidelines For UK Doctors (Aug 8, 2001)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow