A terminally-ill woman took her fight for the right to “die with dignity” to the European court of human rights today.
Diane Pretty, who is paralysed from the neck down by the degenerative motor neurone disease, was wheeled into the court in Strasbourg to hear her lawyers argue that her husband Brian, 45, should be able to help her take her own life without fear of prosecution.
“I just want my rights,” Mrs Pretty said after the 90-minute hearing. She can only speak with the use of a voice synthesiser.
“Our very first trip abroad is to come here to ask for Diane’s right to die,” Mr Pretty said.
The couple were taken to Strasbourg in an ambulance from their home in Luton.
“They said it wasn’t possible for her to make it. Well, we’re here,” Mr Pretty said.
The House of Lords has already turned down an appeal by Mrs Pretty that her husband be allowed to assist her death. The British courts insist that the European convention on human rights, which is enshrined in UK law, does not allow assisted suicide.
The advanced state of her condition means she is physically unable to kill herself. Her lawyers argue that the human rights code prohibits “inhuman and degrading treatment”, safeguards the “right to life” and also guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”.
The European court has put her case on a fast track, knowing that Mrs Pretty does not have long to live. Her application for a court hearing in Strasbourg was only made in January. It would normally take years for such an application to reach the court. Similarly, a judgement is expected soon, instead of the usual months or years most applicants have to wait.
Jonathan Crow, representing the government, expressed sympathy for the “tragic circumstances” of Mrs Pretty’s case.
But he said the law on assisted suicide was clear.
“In the United Kingdom a simple and clear cut distinction has been drawn. Domestic law simply does not allow one person to intervene deliberately to bring about another person’s death.”
He said the human rights code protected individuals against inhuman or degrading treatment, but in Mrs Pretty’s case the cause of her suffering was a disease and she was not a victim of state-inflicted inhuman treatment.
Mr Crow said it was also an offence in many other countries that have signed up to the human rights convention, including Austria, Poland, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Philip Havers QC, representing Mrs Pretty, said that she faced a humiliating and degrading death that would be “distressing and undignified”.
He said: “She wishes to avoid such a death. In English law she would be free to do so if she were physically capable of taking her own life, unassisted.
“But this she cannot do because she is so disabled. In order to avoid the suffering, the indignity and the humiliation … she needs some assistance.
“Her husband has agreed to assist her. But in English law, aside from the convention, he would be guilty of a crime if were he to do so. That is why she is here today. It is her case that under the convention she is entitled to that assistance.”
Mr Havers insisted that granting her wish would not amount to introducing voluntary euthanasia by the back door, nor to “open the flood gates” to assisted suicide.