Diane Pretty has motor neurone disease and would like to die.
Diane Pretty has motor neurone disease and would like to die. She cannot move her limbs, her speech is deteriorating, and she is frustrated by the fact that everything she wishes to do for herself must be performed by someone else. In addition, her disease is painful and terminal. Mrs Pretty has thought long and hard about her situation; she has consulted doctors and her family, and has come to the conclusion that the quality of her life is so impaired that she would kill herself if she could. But, because of the same illness that she wishes to escape, she cannot physically commit suicide.
Mrs Pretty's husband would like to accede to his wife's wish by assisting her to take her own life, but under the Suicide Act of 1961 this would make him liable to prosecution for aiding and abetting a suicide. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), David Calvert-Smith, has the discretion not to prosecute, but he refuses to give Mr Pretty a guarantee that he would not face criminal prosecution were he to help his wife to die.
To resolve this dilemma, Mrs Pretty has turned to the High Court to overturn the decision of the DPP. She argues that the new Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention of Human Rights into English law – and thereby both protects her from "degrading treatment" and guarantees respect for her "private and family life" – should be interpreted to allow her to seek her husband's assistance to die.
Although we hope that Mrs Pretty is allowed to die at her own time, and with dignity, this is not the ideal way to proceed. If she were to win it would impose a great burden, both psychological and practical, on her husband; and it would not lay down clear guidance for future cases. As in other instances of social practice, such as drug law, the seemingly unshockable Dutch manage these things more openly and practically.
In that country, if a terminally ill patient expresses the will to die, a doctor may administer the fatal injections. A series of tests are in place to ensure that the medical situation is as lasting and unbearable as the patient believes and that the patient's decision is "voluntary and well-considered". Additional safeguards include the concurrence of a second doctor, and a provision that another doctor must issue the death certificate.
One objection that has been voiced to granting Mrs Pretty an early escape from her painful fate is that it might encourage other very ill people to feel that they owe it to their families to follow her example. This view is professed by some in the excellent palliative care professions; but, however well meant, it is deeply patronising. If very ill people wish to follow Mrs Pretty's example, that is their business; if they prefer to live out their lives in a hospice, that too is their right.
Typically, the British way has been for doctors to "allow" terminally ill people to die by administering an extra-large dose of pain-killer, or by withholding treatment that might prolong their lives. When prosecutions have followed exposure by a third party, juries have invariably refused to convict. Mrs Pretty could have followed this long-standing precedent, but we salute her integrity in trying to make an open exit from life which forces the rest of us to confront our failure to put in place a humane legal regimen for the terminally ill.
If our legislators wish to take up an issue that is of real importance to many voters, they will put their minds to a reform of the law regarding assisted suicide. Mrs Pretty has already written to Mr Blair begging him to change the law on voluntary euthanasia. Something along the lines of the Dutch law would be a fitting tribute to a brave woman.Reuse content