Please Kill Me | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.03.2002
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Please Kill Me

A terminally ill British woman has taken her case to the European Court of Human rights. She wants to die with dignity but cannot commit suicide herself. If her husband kills her, he'll go to jail.


Diane Pretty is seeking permission for an assisted suicide

Diane Pretty is paralyzed from her neck down. The 43-year-old mother-of-two is suffering from motor neurone disease, an incurable neurological disorder. Doctors say that she'll die within a matter of months. Her death is likely to be slow and painful: she will suffocate.

"I just want my rights"

But Diane Pretty doesn't intend to wilt away. She wants to commit suicide because she would like to die with dignity while her mind is still clear and functioning. "I just want my rights," she says.

Since she is almost completely paralyzed, however, she'll have to rely on the help of others to end her life.

Her husband Brian is willing to help put his wife out of her misery. But under British law, helping someone take their life is an offence. Brian would face a jail sentence of up to 14 years.

In November, Diane Pretty took her case to Britain's highest court of appeal. She asked that her husband not be prosecuted if he helps her die. But the court ruled against Diane Pretty.

Human right to die?

Diane and her husband have now taken their case to the next legal level: the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They are basing their case on the European Convention on Human Rights. It enshrines the right to live – and according to Diane's lawyer, Philip Havers, this also means everyone has the right to end their lives.

Not so, says the Jonathan Crow, one of the lawyers representing the British government. He says the European Convention on Human Rights does not include everyone's right to commit suicide.

Jonathan Crow and his colleagues say that although Diane's case is tragic, helping someone to die is clearly illegal. "The subject of assisted suicide prompts all sorts of moral, religious and emotional questions," Crow told the court on Tuesday. "But we are here to deal with the legal issue, which is simple and clear."

It's vital to prosecute people who kill on request, Crow says in order to protect old and demented people. If they ask someone to help them die, they might not be able to judge the full consequences of their request, the lawyer argues.

Crow says Pretty is "physically and psychologically vulnerable" and unable to authorize her husband to help her die.

But Diane's lawyer Philip Havers disagrees. He says his client is by no means confused or demented and that there's no need to protect her from her own actions. "She is of sound will and has a clear mind," he says.

Diane's legal team argues that the British government is guilty of inhuman and degrading treatment if it denies Diane Pretty the right to die.

Debate in Europe

If the European Court of Human Rights decides in Diane Pretty's favor, hers will be a ground-breaking case in Europe. Pretty's appeal has already sparked a controversial debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide in Britain and other European countries.

The only European country where euthanasia is legal is the Netherlands. Dutch lawmakers legalized euthanasia last April. But it's only permitted if very strict conditions are met. Adult patients have to convince the authorities that they truly want to die and that their only alternative is a life of unbearable suffering.

In Germany assisted suicide is legal. But killing someone on request is considered a crime and will be prosecuted. Due to Germany's Nazi past, euthanasia is a volatile issue in this country. The Nazis had instituted large-scale programs to "exterminate" all life that they saw unfit – this included thousands of mentally and physically handicapped people.

Moral dilemma

The European Court of Human Rights has an extremely sensitive case on its hands.

Handicapped and human rights groups are watching eagerly to see how the judges will decide.

They heard both sides on Tuesday. After the 90 minute hearing, the court acknowledged that Diane Pretty's life expectancy was poor but that her intellect and capacity to make decisions were unimpaired. That could be a first indication that the judges will side with Diane.

They have already told her that, given the circumstances, they will treat the case with utmost urgency.

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