High Court throws out bid to 'die in dignity'

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The Independent Online

A High Court judge said the country was not ready for assisted suicide yesterday as he turned down a terminally ill woman's right to die with the help of her husband.

Diane Pretty, 42, who is paralysed from the neck down due to motor neurone disease, had asked for the right to "die with dignity" so that the court could rule on the principle of the legality of assisted suicide.

Her legal team had asked the judges to quash the Director of Public Prosecutions' refusal to rule out taking action against her husband.

Philip Havers QC said there was a "terrible irony" in the fact that Mrs Pretty could commit suicide without committing an offence but was unable to do so because of her condition. To deny her the right to die was to infringe her human rights and subject her to "inhuman and degrading treatment".

But Lord Justice Tuckey, sitting with Lady Justice Hale and Mr Justice Silber, insisted that to argue thus was to stand the European Convention on Human Rights on its head as its provisions were aimed at protecting and preserving life.

The High Court judges' decision was hailed as a "victory for common sense" by those opposed to euthanasia and condemned by its supporters.

Mrs Pretty, through her husband of 25 years, Brian, said she was disappointed, angry and determined to fight on.

"She feels that she has got a right to do what she feels is right," he said.

Lord Justice Tuckey said the judges were "desperately sorry" for her and her family. But he added: "We are not being asked to approve physician assisted suicide in carefully defined circumstances with carefully defined safeguards.

"We are being asked to allow a family member to help a loved one die, in circumstances of which we know nothing, in a way of which we know nothing, and with no continuing scrutiny by any outside person.

"Even if we had good reason to think that the blanket ban on assisting suicide were no longer thought necessary in the democratic society of England and Wales, we would have no reason to think that to allow assisted suicide in such circumstances would be generally acceptable. But there is no reason to suppose that we have yet reached that point. All the indications are that democratic opinion in this country is not ready for change."

The court refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords though Mrs Pretty's husband said they would apply directly for a hearing before the Law Lords.

Mrs Pretty, a mother-of-two from Luton, Bedfordshire, who was diagnosed with the untreatable disease in 1999, faces imminent death from weakening breathing muscles. Though she retains her intellect, she has to be fed through a tube and has no decipherable speech.

In August this year the DPP, David Calvert-Smith, expressed his "deepest sympathy" but said he could not give an undertaking not to prosecute a criminal offence "no matter how exceptional the circumstances". Mrs Pretty had asked the judges to make an order requiring the DPP to give the undertaking or declare that his decision was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lord Justice Tuckey said: "Whatever the strength of the human rights arguments advanced, they could not properly be used to compel the DPP to act in this way."

He added: "This case concerns the conflict between two of the fundamental rights possessed by all human beings: the right to life and the right to decide what will and will not be done with one's own body."

The provisions of the Human Rights Convention, he said, were aimed at the protection and dignity of life "because of its fundamental value, not only to the individual but also to the community as a whole".

Dr Michael Howitt-Wilson, of Alert, which opposes euthanasia, said: "For the court to give a decision the other way would have made the whole sanctity of life look ridiculous. I think it is a victory for common sense." But a spokesman for the civil rights group Liberty, said: "Society isn't served by denying Diane's wish to die with dignity rather than endure a more protracted end."