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Health Insight March 2002: Right-to-die cases


In Strasbourg last month, Diane Pretty heard Jonathan Crow QC, representing the British government, tell the European Court of Human Rights that she has no right to be helped to die. Mrs Pretty, who is terminally ill with motor neurone disease, wants her husband Brian to help her commit suicide – but the UK director of public prosecutions said he would not grant him immunity to prosecution in those circumstances. Mrs Pretty took her case to Strasbourg after three failed attempts in the UK to get that decision overturned – the High Court, Court of Appeal and House of Lords all rejected her arguments. At the hearing Mr Crow, said he was sorry about the ‘tragic circumstances’ of Mrs Pretty’s case. However, he said, ‘Domestic law simply does not allow one person to intervene deliberately to bring about another person’s death.’ The case ended on 19th March and a decision was not expected for at least two weeks. There is no right of appeal.


Legal history was made last month when a forty-three-year-old paralysed woman was told that she has the right to have her life support machine, which had kept her alive for more than a year, turned off. The woman, known only as Miss B, told England’s senior family judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, ‘I want to be able to die’. Doctors at the hospital refused to carry out her wishes for ethical reasons, forcing her to take her case to the High Court. However, Dame Elizabeth ruled that doctors did not have the right to refuse her request and she would now be allowed to die ‘peacefully and with dignity’. The case is the first in Britain in which a patient being kept alive on a ventilator has asked for it to be switched off. In the days following the ruling the case this fact prompted massive media coverage. The Times ran a two-page ‘feature’, illustrated with artist’s impressions of Miss B in her hospital bed and Dame Elizabeth speaking to the Royal Courts of Justice by video link.

Source: BBC Online, Guardian 7th March, The Times 23rd March

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