- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

BRUSSELS Europe's leading human rights court threw out an appeal yesterday by a terminally ill and paralyzed British woman who wants her husband to help end her life.

"The law has taken all my rights away," said Diane Pretty, speaking in London with the aid of a keyboard and a computer voice synthesizer.

Mrs. Pretty, 43, suffers from a motor-neuron disease that has left her paralyzed from the neck down and in a wheelchair. Her husband, Brian Pretty, said doctors told them his wife's life expectancy was "limited to months."

Diane Pretty brought her case to the European court after Britain's highest appeals court ruled in November that her husband could not be guaranteed immunity from prosecution if he helped her die. Suicide is legal in Britain, but helping someone else commit suicide is a crime punishable by as many as 14 years in prison.

On Monday, a seven-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, sided unanimously with British authorities.

In their ruling, the judges said they "could not but be sympathetic" to Mrs. Pretty's effort to avoid a "distressing death."

However, they rejected her lawyers' assertions that British laws infringed on portions of the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing the right to life, prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment and protecting respect for private life.

At a news conference with his wife in London yesterday, Brian Pretty said the couple and their supporters were beginning a petition to support the right to assisted suicide.

"We hope the people will sign on Diane's behalf, asking the government to do something about the law to allow her to have her right to choose the way she dies," he said.

The court's judgment is considered a test case for Europe, where the Netherlands became the first country to fully legalize euthanasia, on April 1. Similar legislation is expected to come into force soon in Belgium, and other countries including Switzerland, France, Germany and Sweden tolerate assisted suicides.

Mrs. Pretty's lawyers have three months to appeal and take the case to a 17-judge grand jury.

Deborah Annetts, director of Britain's Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said British laws on assisted suicide are the "most repressive in Europe." She said 90 percent of Britons support a change in the law.

However, anti-euthanasia campaigners said the ruling yesterday would put a brake on mercy-killing legislation in Europe and could open the way for a legal challenge before the Strasbourg court to overturn the Dutch euthanasia laws.

"We hope that a sorry chapter of legal history has now been closed," said Andy Berry, spokesman for the campaign group Alert. "People who are severely disabled are very vulnerable, and society should protect them, not kill them."

In a related case, Britain's Department of Health said another paralyzed woman who won a landmark case giving her the legal right to terminate life-sustaining medical treatment had died after being taken off a ventilator.

A ruling from Britain's High Court last month said the 43-year-old woman, identified only as B, had the right to refuse such treatment. She died Wednesday, the Health Department said.

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