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Mrs Pretty and Ms B
  1. K M Boyd, Deputy Editor
  1. Geriatric Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Edinburgh, UK;

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    Was society’s response adequate in the cases of Mrs Pretty and Ms B?

    On the 11th of May, less than two weeks after losing her final legal appeal, Mrs Diane Pretty died, under sedation and in the care of a hospice. It was not the end she had pursued through the English High Court, the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords, and the European Court of Human Rights. Paralysed by motor neurone disease and unable to take her own life, Mrs Pretty wanted her husband to be allowed to help her to die when they decided the time had come. But in England, assisting suicide is a crime, although suicide itself no longer is, and the English courts refused Mrs Pretty’s request to grant her husband legal immunity. In turning to the European Court of Human Rights, Mrs Pretty argued that the English courts’ refusal had violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

    The European court, however, judged that there had been no violation. The right to life (article 2 of the convention) could not be construed as conferring a “right to die”, and consequently the state could not be required to “sanction actions intended to terminate life” in order to protect Mrs Pretty from the “inhuman or degrading treatment” (prohibited by article 3) to which she claimed the law on assisted suicide subjected her. The right to respect for private life (article 8), moreover, had to be exercised “in accordance with the law” of the state concerned. “States were entitled to regulate through the operation of the general criminal law activities which were detrimental to the life and safety of other individuals”; and such activities were what the English law against assisting suicide was designed to prevent. Exceptions to this law could not be allowed without undermining the …

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