London (CNSNews.com) - A British woman Friday won the first step in her legal battle to win permission for her husband help her commit suicide. Anti-euthanasia campaigners fear the case could remove legal protection for the disabled and other vulnerable groups.
The High Court in London granted Diane Pretty's application for a full judicial review into her case. Mr. Justice Silber, who described the case as "tragic," said the hearing should be held as quickly as possible. Pretty, who is confined to a wheelchair and has limited movement, burst into tears when the decision was announced.
The 42-year-old mother of two, who has terminal motor neurone disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), is challenging prosecutors' refusal to rule out indicting her husband, Brian, if he helps her to end her life.
Her lawyers are using human rights legislation brought onto the UK statute books a year ago, arguing that the government is subjecting her to inhuman and degrading treatment. They are also citing provisions protecting privacy of family life without interference from public authorities.
Since being diagnosed with the muscle-wasting disease in 1999, Pretty says, her quality of her life has been affected so badly she wants the right to die, but it too weak to kill herself without assistance.
But the Human Rights Act she is invoking has come up against an older law, the 1961 Suicide Act, section two of which make assisting a suicide a crime. Pretty's lawyers said they were not only arguing that their client's rights were being violated, but that the 1961 law was incompatible with the Human Rights Act.
"If we win this case ... rational, competent adults who are terminally ill will then be able to use the Suicide Act to be able to die with dignity," said Mona Arshi, a lawyer for the Prettys.
Pretty has won the backing of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and a civil rights group, Liberty. Opposing her stance are pro-life and anti-euthanasia campaigners.
One of them, Andy Berry, said he deplored some of the publicity surrounding the Pretty case.
"I have watched as society has gained increased respect for disabled people over the last 50 years of my life," said Berry, who has cerebral palsy. "I hope I do not see the decline of this respect over the next few months."
Berry is a spokesman for a group called Alert (Against Legalized Euthanasia, Research and Teaching), which he said was deeply opposed to any change in the law which would single out the lives of sick or disabled people as not worth the law's protection.
Alert's aim is to warn people of the dangers of euthanasia legislation and "pro-death initiatives" such as promotion of "living wills" or "advance directives," in which people prepare ahead of time instructions about their desire to die prematurely if they become unable to make such decisions.
These ideas "create a climate for the acceptance of euthanasia," he said.
Euthanasia is against the law in Britain, but some doctors have helped their patients to die nonetheless, either by withholding treatment or prescribing lethal doses of pain-relieving drugs.
A study in 1998 found that up to 27,000 people in the country had been helped to die in this way.
Guidelines currently being drawn up by the General Medical Council, the official physicians' regulatory body, say that artificial feeding and hydration could be withdrawn in the patients' "best interests."
Anti-euthanasia campaigners would like trainee doctors to have to swear the Hippocratic Oath, which prohibits doctors from doing no harm to their patients.
A doctors' organization called First Do No Harm expressed grave concern about the Pretty application.
"Could there be any guarantee, if this were granted, that such liberties would only be taken with people whose existence could not be made tolerable?" asked the group's Dr. Richard Lamerton.
"Peop1e with progressive illnesses would have been put into a new category," he said. "Their lives would no longer be protected by law. Many disabled people would be made to feel unsafe, especially sick wives. If the Pretty case was allowed it would open the door to some very dubious dispatchings."
UK Woman Brings First 'Right To Die' Case Under Human Rights Law (Aug 20, 2001)
Pro-Lifers Unhappy About Life-Or-Death Guidelines For UK Doctors (Aug 8, 2001)