A final freedom for woman who fought to end her life

Campaigner went to European court in attempt to change law on suicide
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The Independent Online

In the words of her husband, Brian, the right-to-die campaigner Diane Pretty was "free at last" after she finally and inevitably succumbed to motor neurone disease.

But it would be wrong to talk of the brave 43-year-old mother from Luton having "lost" a fight against this cruel and dignity-robbing condition; the former cook had, throughout her illness, craved the right to be allowed to die.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, thought otherwise, however, warning Mrs Pretty last August that her husband would face jail if he assisted in her death.

With a courage that amazed those who watched her travel to the highest courts in Britain and in Europe, Mrs Pretty challenged the decision in an attempt to save others from the pain she suffered at every moment. Confined to a wheelchair, she had even been deprived of the power of speech and communicated by an electronic voice synthesiser.

According to her husband, who was interviewed for a BBC Panorama documentary scheduled to be shown last night, she did not so much fall asleep at nights as pass out through pain.

She was paralysed from the neck down, incontinent and had to be fed through a tube. Asked if even this form of life was better than being dead, she replied, through her synthesiser: "I am dead."

Mrs Pretty was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in November 1999 although she had first noticed its symptoms two years earlier. She had been married for nearly 25 years to a man she met on a coach trip to Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, and she had two children.

If Brian Pretty had helped his wife to die he could have faced up to 14 years in jail under the Suicide Act of 1961, which prevents a third party from assisting in a death.

Despite her courage in challenging the law, the courts felt unable to give Diane Pretty the ruling she had hoped for. Concerns were voiced that any changes to the existing law could have far-reaching ramifications that society might later regret.

Fears were raised that the elderly and infirm might not always be given the "right to live". Last month, the Prettys' legal fight came to an end when judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg unanimously ruled that they could not take their case any further.

The disappointment followed earlier jubilant scenes at the High Court in London when Mrs Pretty won the right to have her case heard. But the judges ruled in October last year that the country was not yet ready for assisted suicide.

At an emergency hearing at the House of Lords, their counsel, Philip Havers QC, said: "She is profoundly frightened by the thought of the distressing and undignified death she will inevitably have to endure. She very strongly wishes to control how and when she dies.

"But for her disorder, she would be able to do so by lawfully committing suicide. The terrible irony of the case is that the disorder which causes her so much suffering also prevents her from doing so."

In the lead judgment, Lord Bingham described the question of whether the terminally-ill should be free to seek help in taking their own lives as being of great social, ethical and religious significance. But the purpose of the House of Lords appeal committee was not to weigh the differing views and give its own verdict, but to apply the law of the land.

And so the Prettys went on to Strasbourg, where again they met disappointment. After the final rejection last month, Brian Pretty said: "Diane has never regretted taking it on. It's taken its toll on me, but Diane has never regretted doing it."

Less than a fortnight later, and without the need for her husband's assistance, Diane Pretty was finally released from her pain.