Let Me Die

No. 5 of #50cases.

In 1999 Diane Pretty received devastating news: she had Motor Neurone Disease. She was going to die a protracted and painful death.

Her condition deteriorated rapidly. By 2002, Diane was paralysed from the neck down, she had virtually no decipherable speech and had to be fed by a tube. In fear of the prospect of a painful and undignified death, Diane wanted someone to help her end her life. She applied to the government to guarantee that her husband would not be prosecuted if he helped her to die. Since assisted suicide is illegal in the UK, the government refused.

Diane took her case to the European Court of Human Rights. She argued that the right to life included the right to choose whether to go on living, and that this was infringed by the current UK law. But the court decided that none of her human rights had been unfairly restricted. The judges said that the right to life was not determined by the quality of the life in question. So it could not be interpreted as giving us a right to die.

The judges accepted, however, that Diane’s right to choose how to end her life did come within the scope of her right to respect for her private life. But they said the UK’s decision to make assisted suicide illegal had a legitimate objective in trying to protect vulnerable people. So Diane’s husband was not allowed to help her die.

Diane died on 11 May 2002, a month after the ruling. She told reporters that “The law has taken all my rights away.” The outcome of her case suggested that a challenge to the illegality of assisted dying in the UK is unlikely to succeed on human rights grounds. Some people may see this as a human rights victory, others as an example of how the European Convention does not give us enough rights. a number of cases have followed Diane’s, and on each occasion the courts seem to have inched a little closer to the result which Diane wanted. Ultimately the right-to-die debate will probably have to be resolved by our Parliament. For now, there is no right to die.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

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