THURSDAY OCTOBER 11 2001
BY FRANCES GIBB, LEGAL EDITOR
A TERMINALLY ill woman began her High Court case to be allowed to “die with dignity” from her wheelchair yesterday.
Diane Pretty, who is in an advanced stage of motor neurone disease, argued through her barrister that “death is an integral part of life” and asked the three judges for a declaration that her husband may help her to commit sucide without risk of prosecution.
Suicide is permitted in Britain under the Suicide Act, 1961, but it is a crime to help another to commit suicide, punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
In the first case of its kind, Mrs Pretty seeks to overturn a refusal by the Director of Public Prosecutions to grant an undertaking that he would not prosecute her husband, Brian, if he helps her to end her life.
Mrs Pretty, 42, who can move only her head, listened as her barrister argued that the DPP’s refusal not to grant the undertaking was a breach of her human rights.
Philip Havers, QC, for Mrs Pretty, a mother of two from Luton, Bedfordshire, told Lord Justice Tuckey, sitting in London with Lady Justice Hale and Mr Justice Silber, that her condition had so badly impaired the quality of her life that she wanted to be able to choose when to die.
Mrs Pretty was at an advanced stage of the incurable disease and was frightened and “distressed at the suffering and indignity which she will have to endure before she dies if the disease is allowed to run its course. She has very little life left and there is nothing, by way of treatment, which can stave off her death.”
It would be “frankly absurd” to argue that the State was obliged under the Human Rights Act, which guarantees a “right to life”, to prevent someone who wanted to die from doing so, Mr Havers said. “After all, death is an integral part of life. You cannot have one without the other and in this case this is now painfully true, because death is not far away.”
Mrs Pretty was found to have motor neurone disease in 1999 and her condition has deteriorated rapidly, leaving her paralysed from the neck down with almost no ability to speak. But her intellect remained unimpaired.
Mr Havers said: “She very strongly wishes to control when and how she dies and be spared the suffering and indignity she would otherwise have to endure. The terrible irony of this case is that her condition prevents her from doing so unaided. All she would do would be to shorten her life, not by a lifetime or half a lifetime, but by a few weeks.
“It would not impact on the community because no one would be affected apart from Mrs Pretty, her husband and indirectly her family, who support her in all this.”
Mr Havers argued that, by denying her the chance to commit suicide with the help of her husband of 25 years, the Government was breaching several articles of the Human Rights Act, 1998. The DPP was in breach of his duty under Article 3 to protect her from inhuman and degrading treatment, which she would suffer as a result of his decision.
He had also denied her her right to life, under Article 2, which included a right to die with dignity, and her right under Article 8 to a private life, which included the physical integrity of a person.
The Human Rights Act did not “protect the sanctity of life, life itself, but the right to life — and its corollary — the right to die and to choose how and when one dies.”
Mr Pretty was willing to comply with his wife’s wishes if he were given immunity from prosecution, and their children, Clara, 24, and Brian, 22, supported their mother.
Her family’s lawyers wrote to David Calvert-Smith, QC, the DPP, in July asking him to give an undertaking that Mr Pretty would not be prosecuted if he helped in the suicide. Mr Calvert-Smith conceded that the Prettys were enduring terrible suffering, but refused to offer a guarantee.
Mr Havers said the case was not about voluntary euthanasia; it was only about whether Mrs Pretty was entitled in law to the assistance of her husband. A key issue is whether the DPP has the legal power to give the undertaking. Mr Havers said he had the power and was obliged to exercise it, under the Human Rights Act, in favour of Mrs Pretty.
He denied that such a decision would open the floodgates. “This truly is a rare or even unique case.”
The case continues.
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd