After a gruelling, 12-hour ambulance journey from Britain, Diane Pretty yesterday took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, making a final plea for the law to sanction her right to "die with dignity".
Terminally ill and paralysed from the neck down, Mrs Pretty attended the 90-minute hearing in Strasbourg which provides her final chance of winning a legal battle to end her life with her husband's help.
Mrs Pretty, a 43-year-old mother with two children who has motor neurone disease, did not give a statement to the court because she was unable to speak, and will not learn the outcome for about two weeks.
Despite her physical disabilities, Mrs Pretty retains her mental capabilities and, outside the court, used a voice synthesiser to tell reporters: "I just want my rights." Her husband, Brian, said their journey outside the UK had been "very poignant," adding: "Our very first trip abroad is to come here to ask for Diane's right to die."
The couple's case, which has provoked a huge legal and ethical debate, has already been rejected by the House of Lords which insisted that the European Convention on Human Rights, now enshrined in UK law, does not permit assisted suicide.
Although it is not an offence in the UK to take one's own life, Mrs Pretty's condition has deteriorated to such an extent that she requires her husband's help to do so. Under British law Mr Pretty faces a maximum 14-year jail sentence if he assists her suicide.
Mrs Pretty's lawyers say 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".
Her barrister, Philip Havers, said the case was about life, imminent death and incurable illness. "Most of all, a case about an individual, a courageous and determined and dying woman, and the extent to which her individual rights are protected under the Convention." Mr Havers said Mrs Pretty was facing a humiliating and degrading death which would be "distressing and undignified". He went on: "Her intellect and capacity to make decisions are unimpaired by her disease. She is neither vulnerable nor in need of protection. Her death is imminent and cannot be avoided. If the disease is to allow to run its course she will endure suffering and indignity which can be avoided." "No one else is affected by her wish for her husband to assist her, apart from him and her family, who are all wholly supportive of her decision."
Jonathan Crow, representing the Government, expressed sympathy for the "tragic circumstances" of the case but said: "In the United Kingdom a simple and clear-cut distinction has been drawn. Domestic law simply does not allow one person to intervene deliberately to bring about another person's death."
He said the human rights code protected individuals against inhuman or degrading treatment, but in Mrs Pretty's case the cause of her suffering was a disease and she was not a victim of state-inflicted inhuman treatment.
"A philosopher might say that death is the corollary to life, but the lawyer must answer that the right to die is the antithesis of the right to life," Mr Crow said. He disputed the claim that Mrs Pretty could avoid suffering only by ending her life. "Appropriate palliative care is capable of affording death with dignity."
The application to the court, made in January, would normally have taken years to come before judges but has been rushed through because Mrs Pretty's life expectancy is short.Reuse content