The High Court's decision last month to deny a terminally ill woman assisted suicide has provoked much debate over the right to die and the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) that facilitated the case.Diane Pretty -- a 42-year-old mother of two from Luton -- has suffered from the incurable motor neurone disease since 1999.
Her life expectancy is short.Paralysed from the neck down and barely able to communicate, she has to be fed through a tube.She went to court to challenge the Director of Public Prosecution's (DPP) decision not to grant her husband Brian advanced immunity from action should he assist with a suicide.Under the Suicide Act 1961, those attempting suicide were decriminalised, but anyone assisting them -- as Mr Pretty hoped to -- is still liable for a prison term of up to 14 years.
In addition, the Act requires the DPP's discretion over whether to prosecute.Mrs Pretty's supporters are keen to make the distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia.
In the first situation, the suicide candidate takes an active role, in the latter all actions are taken by another person.Backed by both human rights group Liberty and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Mrs Pretty claims the DPP's decision breaches the HRA.
In particular her argument rests on article 3, the right not to suffer degrading and inhuman treatment, article 2, the right to life and article 8, the right to physical integrity and privacy.Speaking before the House of Lords last week granted leave to appeal, her solicitor, Mona Arshi of Liberty, armed with a certificate of public interest from the High Court, suggests that this case could be a mould-breaking one.She says: 'Hopefully, the House of Lords will give us a definitive judgment and then people will know what the law is.
Anyone after Diane Pretty will clearly know what the House of Lords has to say on the matter.
The best laws are those that are open and transparent.'Ms Arshi and others assert that the whole area of euthanasia/assisted suicide is a shadowy one, carried out in an underground and unregulated fashion.In certain circumstances, it is argued, the medical profession already engages in passive euthanasia.
This refers to the withdrawal of medical aid that might otherwise prolong life, which is a permitted practice; this was established in the 1993 case of Hillsborough victim Tony Bland, when the courts ruled food could be withheld from someone in a permanently vegetative state.In other situations, it is permissible to administer palliative drugs that might dull pain but as a side-effect also bring about death.Last year, the Netherlands was the first country formally to legalise euthanasia -- in the form of medically assisted suicide.Under tight regulations, a person looking to end his or her life has to be suffering from a terminal condition, must have investigated palliative options, and gained the approval of not only a long-standing GP but also another doctor and an ethicist.Back in the UK, solicitor Deborah Annetts, director of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), maintains that this type of medically assisted suicide could provide the an swer here as well.However, she does not totally support the Dutch practices -- in Holland a person may give permission in advance that should an illness, such as dementia, proceed to a particular point, then his or her life might be ended.
The VES advocates that a person should be of cogent mind when the act is committed.Despite such differences, the organisation contends that the situation across the North Sea is preferable to that which currently exists in Britain.Ms Annetts says: 'In the Netherlands, only a third of requests for assisted suicide/voluntary euthanasia are granted.
It makes the requirements much tighter.
Where there is no legislation, a person is much more at risk of having a decision made for them.'She notes how the HRA has acted as a gateway to discussion of the matter: 'It could be our best friend and make the difference in the way people see the issue.'In addressing the moral questions of a doctor's involvement in the act, the VES says that under the HRA, an individual's right to end his or her life must take precedence over all other considerations.The group hopes the Lords will rule that the Suicide Act is incompatible with the HRA.In fact, despite predictions to the contrary, judges no doubt influenced by the views of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, have treated the HRA with conservatism.
In its first year, the HRA has not prompted a flood of radical judgments.This gives succour to several organisations opposed to any attempts to legalise euthanasia.
Principal among them is the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), which was present at Mrs Pretty's case.Its solicitor, Paul Conrathe from Croydon firm Coningsbys, naturally takes a different view from the VES.He says: 'A change could fundamentally alter the doctor/patient relationship and there are pressures that may be felt if applied to those in a weak state.'Mr Conrathe says in Holland evidence exists that several hundred people have had their lives ended without being asked.In any event, he stresses that such an important change in the law would require more than just judicial interpretation.He explains: 'The inherent tension on this issue is that of the respective roles of the courts and Parliament.
Arguably, it is principally the role of Parliament to consider such issues, as it is essentially a matter for changing primary legislation.'To opponents of euthanasia, the matter was settled a decade ago when the House of Lords held an in-depth inquiry into the subject and concluded that it should not be permitted.But Mr Conrathe concedes that a change could happen if there is a shift in public perception on the subject of euthanasia.Another solicitor in favour of parliamentary intervention is Richard Price, head of community law at Sheffield-based human rights specialists Howells.
He says that if the issue is to be revisited by Parliament, it should be aided by the creation of a Royal Commission.This would thoroughly investigate the matter by taking evidence from all interested parties, such as the VES, SPUC and others such as the British Medical Association.He agrees that any change to the law could be problematic, but its effect would depend on where a line was drawn.He says: 'Once we say that life is not sacrosanct then we can move onto the next step.
What is the absolute standard? If someone is killed under one circumstance, it can then become a matter of policy whether to extend that right to other areas.'It is clear that such questions will dominate any discussion of the issue should either the court s or Parliament decide to entertain thoughts of change.Mrs Pretty's legal team hopes that the case will be heard by the House of Lords before the turn of the year.Several observers insist that this case may yet start the ball rolling, because of the judicial findings at the last hearing.Alison Eddy, head of clinical negligence at national firm Irwin Mitchell, says: 'The court said it had not closed the door on assisted suicide, and did not rule out in the future that public opinion might change and force changes to the Suicide Act.'It is clear that whether or not Mrs Pretty gets her wish, her legacy will reverberate round the legal world for several years yet.