Woman loses right-to-die ruling

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Diane Pretty, who is terminally-ill, today lost her legal battle for the right to commit suicide with the help of her husband.

Five Law Lords ruled the Human Rights Act had no effect on a refusal by the Director of Public Prosecutions to guarantee her husband Brian freedom from prosecution.

Assisted suicide, said Lord Bingham of Cornhill, was against the law and no-one had the power to suspend or abandon laws without parliamentary consent.

He said that no-one who had heard of Mrs Pretty's illness - motor neurone disease - and its consequences could be unmoved by the frightening ordeal facing her.

The question whether the terminally-ill should be free to seek help in taking their own lives was of great social, ethical and religious significance.

But the purpose of the House of Lords appeal committee was not to weigh the differing views on the subject and give its own verdict but to apply the law of the land.

Mrs Pretty, 43, 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 die.

The mother of two, from Luton, Bedfordshire, who is paralysed from the neck down and has to be fed with a tube, said before the ruling was handed down today: "I hope the Lords will grant me this last wish and allow me a say in how I die.

"I have tried every type of medical treatment offered, including palliative care, and fought this disease every step of the way.

"If I am allowed to decide when and how I die, I will feel that I have wrested some autonomy back and kept hold of my dignity.

"That is how I want my family to remember me - as someone who respected the law and asked in turn that the law respected my rights."

She was represented at the High Court and House of Lords by Philip Havers QC, who argued her case that the DPP, David Calvert-Smith, could give a guarantee that he would not take criminal proceedings against her husband of 25 years if he helps her take her own life.

He said that Mrs Pretty was suffering from a progressive disease and faced death from respiratory failure and pneumonia.

Her condition was diagnosed in 1999 and had deteriorated rapidly so that she now has no decipherable speech and operates a typing machine to communicate.

Mr Havers told the Law Lords that her life expectancy could only be measured in months but her intelligence and ability to make decisions were unimpaired.

"The final stages of the disease are distressing and undignified and 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."

Under English law, helping in a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail but taking one's own life ceased to be a crime in 1961.