Apr 29, 2002
By Andrew Cawthorne
A twist of fate that saw two paralysed British women's fight to die end on the same day but with opposing outcomes has fuelled an emotional debate across Europe on the ethics of euthanasia.
While "Miss B" fulfilled her wish to die in her sleep on Monday, Diane Pretty saw her last chance at controlling when she dies dashed by a European court ruling.
Both 43 and paralysed from the neck down, the two women had battled in courts for the right to "die with dignity." But there the similarities end and the complex cases showed the minefield that is euthanasia law across Europe.
Only one country, the Netherlands, has legalised mercy killing for the hopelessly ill who are desperate to die.
"We in the Netherlands have set the example and I am sure other countries will follow," Rob Jonquiere, managing director of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society, told Reuters, saying he doubted the Pretty case would stop the trend.
Amsterdam's decision earlier this month to sanction euthanasia had opponents drawing parallels with Nazi extermination policies, but Belgium may soon follow suit after its Senate passed a draft law.
Some Scandinavian nations are also mulling such a move, and France's health minister wants to legalise euthanasia too.
In Britain, assisting a suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
In Monday's case at the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights, judges upheld a previous British High Court ruling to deny Pretty's husband immunity from prosecution if he helped her to die.
Whereas Pretty's case foundered because of her husband's active involvement, "Miss B" was deemed last month by the British High Court to have the mental capacity to ask for life support equipment to be switched off.
FOCUS ON LOCAL LAWS
Pro-euthanasia groups argued that regardless of the different outcomes and circumstances of the two cases, they illustrated an underlying need for the law to catch up with public opinion by allowing what is already widely practised.
Medical advances and higher life expectancy have made the problem more urgent now than for previous generations.
The pro-life lobby, however, hailed the controversial decision by the European court as upholding a moral and legal principle of the state's duty to protect life.
"The euthanasia lobby was getting a lot of publicity lately but this showed it is totally against the spirit of the law and the spirit of human rights to take life," Dr. Michael Howitt Wilson, of Britain's Against Legalised Euthanasia group, told Reuters.
"If you legalise euthanasia, that will increase it enormously...If there is a big movement in Europe in favour of that, then it should be stopped."
Richard Nicholson, of the London-based Bulletin of Medical Ethics magazine, said the Strasbourg ruling was inevitable given any court's reluctance to allow a third party, other than a doctor, to participate in an assisted death.
The decision also throws the focus back on to individual nations' local legislation, he said.
"What it shows is that one can only change matters by primary legislation...In Britain, I suspect that whatever public opinion may be, parliament is going to be reluctant to introduce new legislation unless the medical profession's leadership changes its opposition to legalising euthanasia."
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), a London campaign group, called on the British government to reform the laws on assisted death which it called "the most repressive in Europe."
Deborah Annetts, the group's director, told a London news conference:
"If Diane Pretty had been born in Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany,
Sweden or Finland she would not have had to go to court. Brian Pretty would
have been able to help her without fear of prosecution."
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited