Assisted-Suicide Bid Rejected by European Court of Human Rights

In British Case, It Addresses Euthanasia for the First Time

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STRASBOURG, France, APRIL 29, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Europe´s highest human rights court ruled that a terminally-ill British woman does not have the right to commit suicide with her husband´s help.



Diane Pretty, 43, from Luton, Bedfordshire, is dying of motor neuron disease, a degenerative ailment affecting the muscles, for which there is no cure. The patient had requested that her husband Brian not be punished by the law if he helped her to end her life.

For the first time, the European Court of Human Rights had to address the question of euthanasia. It responded point by point to five alleged violations by Britain of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court decided that "the right to life" in Article 2 "could not, without a distortion of language, be interpreted as conferring the diametrically opposite right, namely a right to die; nor could it create a right to self-determination in the sense of conferring on an individual the entitlement to choose death rather than life."

"The Court accordingly found that no right to die, whether at the hands of a third person or with the assistance of a public authority, could be derived from Article 2. There had, therefore, been no violation of that provision," the court explained in a press statement.

The court said it was sympathetic to the applicant´s apprehension that without the possibility of ending her life she faced the prospect of a distressing death.

"Nonetheless," it said, "the positive obligation on the part of the State which had been invoked would require that the State sanction actions intended to terminate life, an obligation that could not be derived from Article 3," of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Neither did the court see that a violation of the right to freedom of conscience was involved, as "the principle of personal autonomy" claimed by the patient, "did not involve a form of manifestation of a religion or belief, through worship, teaching, practice or observance."

Lastly, the judges decided that cogent "reasons existed for not seeking to distinguish between those who were able and those who were unable to commit suicide unaided."

"The borderline between the two categories," it continued, "would often be a very fine one and to seek to build into the law an exemption for those judged to be incapable of committing suicide would seriously undermine the protection of life which the 1961 Act was intended to safeguard and greatly increase the risk of abuse."

Catholic Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, who chairs the department for Christian Responsibility and citizenship of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, said in a statement: "The European Court of Human Rights -- whilst clearly deeply sympathetic to [Mrs. Pretty´s] suffering as an individual -- firmly upheld the sanctity of human life."

"The right to life cannot, without a distortion of language, be interpreted as conferring the diametrically opposite right, namely a right to die," the archbishop said. "Nor can it create a right to self-determination in the sense of conferring on an individual the entitlement to choose death rather than life."

Archbishop Smith sought and was given leave to make a written submission in this case both by the House of Lords and also by the European Court of Human Rights.

In the European Union, the Netherlands has decriminalized euthanasia in very specific cases. In Belgium, Parliament is debating similar legislation.

Today´s court decision may be read at www.echr.coe.int (Judgments and Decision).