Pretty loses Lords challenge over right to die

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Diane Pretty's fight to "die with dignity" appeared doomed yesterday when the highest court in the land ruled against her "last wish" to commit suicide with the help of her husband.

Diane Pretty's fight to "die with dignity" appeared doomed yesterday when the highest court in the land ruled against her "last wish" to commit suicide with the help of her husband.

The terminally ill mother-of-two, who is said to have just months to live because of the motor neurone disease which has paralysed her from the neck down, nevertheless insisted she would take her case to the European Court of Human Rights.

She claims that to deny her some control over the way she ends her life is to subject her to "inhuman and degrading treatment".

Yesterday, however, five Law Lords unanimously ruled that the Human Rights Act could not be used to challenge the Director of Public Prosecutions' refusal to guarantee her husband of 25 years freedom from prosecution. In the first case concerning assisted suicide to come before the House, their Lordships refused to overturn an earlier High Court decision that the Act could not be applied in Mrs Pretty's case.

Nobody could remain unmoved by the "frightening ordeal" which lay ahead of Mrs Pretty, Lord Bingham of Cornhill said, but he added that assisted suicide was against the law and that no one had the power to suspend or abandon laws without parliamentary consent.

Speaking after the judgment, Brian Pretty said: "She [Diane] is angry and disappointed ... she wants to carry on, so I shall carry on with her."

Mrs Pretty, 43, who in two years has lost all decipherable speech and communicates through a typing machine, added: "I feel I have no rights. The Law Lords don't want to admit that the law is wrong."

Her solicitor, Mona Arshi, of Liberty, said: "The overwhelming public support for Diane's case shows very clearly that it is time Parliament reassessed this law. Lord Steyn mentions the possible need for a Death with Dignity Act; we hope very much that Parliament will consider that possibility. In the meantime, we will take the case on to Strasbourg."

On Wednesday, Tony Blair said he was not in favour of reforming the Suicide Act. He said: "I understand the very strong feelings it arouses. It is really a matter of conscience for people on both sides of the House, but I'm afraid I'm not in favour of amending that Act."

Yesterday's decision was greeted with "huge relief" by anti-euthanasia campaigners and with "sadness" by Mrs Pretty's supporters.

In the 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.

He added that the European Convention on Human Rights did not guarantee assisted suicide. Giving the views of the Law Lords, he rejected the argument that the right to life protected the right to self-determination over life and death.

Mrs Pretty's counsel, Philip Havers QC, had told the Law Lords: "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."

He argued that the DPP, David Calvert-Smith, could give a guarantee that he would not take criminal proceedings against her husband if he helped her. The penalty for helping someone commit suicide is up to 14 years.

Mrs Pretty, from Luton, Bedfordshire, was granted an urgent hearing at the House of Lords after the High Court ruled in October that a family member could not help a loved one to die.