Skip to content

Woman takes death plea to European Court

Diane Pretty, a terminally-ill woman, today asked European human rights judges to grant her the right to die with the aid of her husband.

Paralysed from the neck down by motor neurone disease and with a life expectancy described as “very poor”, Mrs Pretty was wheeled into the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to hear her lawyers seek permission to allow her husband Brian, 45, to help her take her own life.

Mrs Pretty, 43, made the journey by road from her Luton home for today’s latest bid to be able to commit assisted suicide without fear of her husband’s prosecution.

She travelled by ambulance accompanied by doctors and was placed close to the centre of the court as the seven human rights judges began hearing her case.

Britain’s Law Lords have already turned down Mrs Pretty’s plea, insisting that the European Convention on Human Rights, now enshrined in UK law, does not allow assisted suicide.

Now Mrs Pretty has taken her case to the Strasbourg court – in effect an appeal against the Law Lords’ ruling. 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.

They say that it is for the individual to choose whether to live and that the right to die is part and parcel of the right to life which the convention protects.

At today’s one-day hearing, her lawyers were also arguing that a blanket prohibition on assisted suicide discriminates against those who are unable to commit suicide without assistance, because the able-bodied are able to exercise the right to die under domestic law.

Although severely restricted physically, Mrs Pretty’s intellect remains unaffected. She sat in court today unable to move but taking in the legal proceedings.

Her application for a human rights court hearing in Strasbourg was made in January. Normally it would take years for such an application to reach the court. But the judges put today’s hearing on the top of the priority list, knowing that Mrs Pretty does not have long to live.

Similarly a judgment is expected swiftly – instead of the usual months or years applicants have to wait. Mrs Pretty, a mother of two, will not be required to give evidence in the hearing, which is expected to be completed within a day.

The hearing comes a day after the Government was accused of giving Law Lords inaccurate information during a vital stage of Mrs Pretty’s legal battle. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) said a Home Office official misled the Lords by saying that assisted suicide was a crime in three countries where it is, in fact, legal.

The Government’s error called into question the Law Lords’ decision to throw out Mrs Pretty’s appeal last November, the charity said. VES director Deborah Annetts said: “I am shocked the Government in a case of such gravity misled the House of Lords.

“Their evidence suggested that UK laws are ‘the norm’, when in fact we have the harshest assisted dying laws in Europe.”

A signed submission from the Government to the Law Lords said that assisted suicide was a crime in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland. In fact, it is only illegal in Spain, the charity said.

Research published by the VES shows that assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany, Sweden and Finland. Under English law, helping in a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail but taking one’s own life ceased to be a crime in 1961.

Speaking before today’s hearing Mr Pretty said he would be prepared to give his wife a lethal injection but only if he was supervised. He said: “I don’t want to be the person who does it but if it did come down to me I would have to be medically supervised because it would be the best thing for Diane.”

“It would break my heart because we have been together since 1974. I knew from when I met her she was the right one.”

He said Mrs Pretty felt let down by the British legal system and maintained she should have the right to decide when to die.

She knows the illness can’t be beaten medically at this point in time so she wants to beat it her way,” he said.