British Law Lords Reject Euthanasia
By Jenny Nolan
NRLC Dept. of Medical Ethics
A drive to legalize euthanasia in the United Kingdom through the courts failed November 29 when the country's highest tribunal refused Diane Pretty's request that her husband be allowed to kill her. Pretty, a 42-year-old mother of two, has a motor neuron disease.
The five Law Lords ruled unanimously that human rights legislation serves to protect life and not to end it. Pretty's lawyers had argued that Britain's ban on assisted suicide obstructed her human rights and right to privacy.
A London newspaper, The Guardian, reported that Lord Bingham, one of the five Law Lords, explained that the European Human Rights Convention contains no guarantee for assisted suicide and pointed out that the Netherlands alone permits it in Europe. Regardless of the benefits that some people claim from the practice of euthanasia, they do not stem from or deserve protection under the European Convention right guarding the sanctity of human life, he said.
According to British news services, Pretty began her legal battle months ago when she petitioned the director of public prosecution not to charge her husband, Brian Pretty, with a crime if he helped her to take her life. The prosecutor refused and Pretty challenged the decision in high court, where she lost on October 18.
On November 1, The Guardian reported that Pretty's case would be heard on appeal by the five Law Lords. They reached their unanimous decision in less than a month.
Diane Pretty's condition was diagnosed in 1999 and has progressed even as she has argued for the right to be killed.
In the early stages of the legal process, Reuters news service reported that she was often seen smiling outside of courthouses with her husband at her side. But by the end of November she depended on a wheelchair and a feeding tube, and had no decipherable speech.
She was often unable to attend hearings. The disease is expected to move into the muscles that control her breathing, where it may cause pneumonia and eventually death by respiratory failure, reported The Guardian.
Lord Bingham was deeply sympathetic to Diane Pretty's plight, calling the prognosis distressing and the disease cruel in newspaper accounts of the court's decision.
"No one of ordinary sensitivity would be unmoved by the frightening ordeal which faces Ms. Pretty," he told BBC News, but "mercy killing is in law killing." He elaborated by expressing his concern that lifting the ban on euthanasia might convince some of Britain's elderly, who otherwise would have no desire to die, to end their lives thinking they are a "burden" to others.
The Law Lords' refusal to exempt those who kill a disabled person from punishment maintains the equal protection of the law for all citizens.
Euthanasia poses no threat to healthy, "productive" citizens, but rather to those bound by pain, lost in depression, or struggling with financial or family problems. Its allure is that euthanasia is supposedly effortless, inexpensive, and final.
If the people around the patient feel the same way, any positive alternatives become even harder to secure.
Alison Davis, who has spina bifida, knows this only too well. Fifteen years ago she tried to kill herself, driven by the departure of her husband of 10 years, who was also her caregiver.
She unfolded her story in the Daily Express, one of the United Kingdom's national newspapers, shortly before Diane Pretty's appeal.
Born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that leads to an underdeveloped spine, Davis is paralyzed from the waist down and has no feeling on the right side of her body. She lives with the lung disease emphysema as well as osteoporosis.
Her bones break easily and her nerves are often trapped by her collapsing spine, pinning her body in sharp pain that she likens to slamming your fingers in a door over and over again. When it becomes too great to bear she takes morphine. Because her condition is not terminal, there is no end in sight.
Yet for all these medical problems, Davis is optimistic about her life. She reflected back on her early desperation.
"Wanting to die and actually taking steps to try to make it happen lasted about five years," she told the Daily Telegraph. "In the following five years I often felt as desperate, but began to realize it would hurt my friends terribly."
Those days are far behind her now. Twelve years ago Colin Harte took over as her full-time caregiver. Even in the moments that he can't take her pain away, she says it's a comfort to know that he's there with her, reassuring her that it will stop.
Davis no longer feels that death is the "solution" to desperation and views legalizing euthanasia as the mark of a society that has given up on its most vulnerable members. The answer to suffering is better training in palliative care and a framework of support for people, said Davis.
She is terrified that cases like Diane Pretty's will encourage society to react toward people like Pretty and herself as if they would be "better off dead."
"I think it's sad that Diane Pretty is surrounded by people who say she is right to feel her life has no value," she told the Daily Telegraph. "If you are surrounded by people who agree you would be better off dead you end up believing it."
Five years ago Davis accepted an invitation to sponsor two disabled children in India, even going so far as to travel to see them. On returning to England, she started a charity to raise money for disabled and abandoned Indian children. Just last year she opened a home for them in Southern India. She is currently in the process of funding an on-site surgical unit.
"I realize what a waste it is to want to die," she said, "even when your life is limited."
"The ultimate terror is of being all on your own and worrying how you are going to cope," she explained to the Daily Telegraph. "But if you are surrounded by people who make you feel as if your life has the same unfathomable value as theirs, then you are able to cope with tomorrow."