Diane Pretty loses case, while Miss B 'dies with dignity'

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The Independent Online

Britain's laws surrounding euthanasia were upheld in two contrasting cases yesterday as one woman was allowed to "die with dignity" while another was refused the right to commit suicide.

Miss B, who went to court last month to force doctors to withdraw all medical treatment, died peacefully in hospital yesterday.

But Diane Pretty, who is dying of motor neurone disease, lost her final challenge to choose the time and means of her own death.

Both women suffered debilitating illnesses leaving them paralysed from the neck down. Both had asked for the right to die with dignity.

But Mrs Pretty required the assistance of her husband to commit suicide, an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison, while Miss B had only asked for doctors to stop treating her terminal illness.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the senior family judge of the High Court, told doctors last month to grant Miss B her wish. Miss B "had died peacefully in her sleep after being taken off the ventilator at her request", the Department of Health said yesterday.

Almost simultaneously, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Mrs Pretty and declared that the right to life did not mean there was also a right to die.

The fact that the UK's Suicide Act does not distinguish between those physically capable, and those not, of committing suicide could not be seen as breaching European rules on discrimination, it ruled.

"Cogent reasons exist for not seeking to distinguish between those able and unable to commit suicide unaided," the judgment said.

"The borderline between the two categories would often be a very fine one, and to seek to build into the law an exemption for those judged to be incapable of committing suicide would seriously undermine the protection of life which the 1961 Act was intended to safeguard, and greatly increase the risk of abuse," it said.

The law is designed to protect elderly and very sick people, who are vulnerable to abuse from doctors and relatives that could be portrayed as assisted suicide.

After the ruling, Mrs Pretty's solicitor, Mona Arshi, from the civil rights organisation Liberty, said: "We really believe the court had an opportunity to remedy a defect in current law which placed Diane and people like her in a tragic trap.

"It seems odd that Diane doesn't have a right to die how she wishes when a court earlier this year upheld 'Miss B's' right to require doctors to turn off her life-support machine. We call on the Government to take action to remedy this injustice."

Deborah Annetts, director of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said after the ruling that 90 per cent of the British public supported a change in the law. The UK's laws on assisted suicide were "the most repressive in Europe", she added.

Last August Mrs Pretty had requested an assurance that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would not take action against her husband, Brian, whom she wanted to help her commit suicide.

A spokesman for the DPP said the existing guidance was clear and there would be no changes. The Home Office also said that while legislation was always being reviewed there were no plans to reform the laws surrounding suicide and euthanasia.

Andy Berry, of anti-euthanasia campaign group Alert, said: "We hope that a sorry chapter of legal history has now been closed. People who are severely disabled are very vulnerable and society should protect them, not kill them."

Peter Duckworth, of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, said: "If there were no sanctions against assisted suicide, it would be a charter for people to dispose of burdensome relatives and for hospitals to clear their waiting lists. Furthermore, doctors would come under intense pressure to administer lethal doses."