London (CNSNews.com) - Pro-life activists hailed a ruling Thursday by Britain's High Court that prevents the husband of a terminally ill woman from helping her commit suicide.
The case marked the first time British courts were asked to rule on the legality of assisted suicide. Diane Pretty, 42, has motor neurone disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), an untreatable degenerative condition.
She had asked the government to rule out prosecuting her husband if he assisted her in committing suicide. Director of Public Prosecutions David Calvert-Smith refused the request in August and the Prettys sued, claiming the government was denying Diane Pretty's human rights by not allowing her to die with dignity.
Three High Court justices heard the case last week and they rejected Pretty's argument Thursday, saying that human rights do not extend to a "right to die."
While the judges said they were "desperately sorry" for the couple, they noted that if the director of public prosecutions had agreed not to prosecute Pretty's husband Brian, the decision would amount to a "licence to commit crime."
In Britain, assisting a suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but prosecutors have discretion over whether to file charges in an individual case.
The Prettys hope to take their case to the House of Lords on appeal.
Pro-life groups welcome ruling
Groups that supported the government in the case welcomed Thursday's ruling. Andy Berry, spokesman for pro-life organization Alert, said that while he was pleased with the decision, his group's struggle is not over.
"We're very relieved that the decision went not to grant Brian Pretty immunity from prosecution," said Berry. "But the fight against euthanasia continues. I hope this case is an indication that the government has taken on board the idea that people should not have their lives devalued just because they are disabled."
In a statement, Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said that people with terminal illnesses should feel "reassured" by the High Court decision.
"They should feel under no pressure from anyone - least of all the state - to ask for euthanasia or assisted suicide," Tully said. "Like all of us, they have a right to exist, and every effort should be made to relieve their pain and discomfort."
The Prettys have said they will appeal to the House of Lords, where a select group of Law Lords has the power to overrule the High Court.
Ruth Davis, a spokeswoman with the Pro-Life Alliance, says such an appeal may not get very far.
"The final judgement was impressive and there's really no leeway to appeal to the House of Lords," Davis said by phone Thursday. "There's no query left hanging, and little possibility of error in the judgement."
She said although the ruling was "good news," the impact of the decision should not be overestimated.
"I don't think that there is a sea change or shift in values," Davis said. "There's still a huge amount of pressure from the other side."
She said the Alliance advocates pain management for the terminally ill.
"You can't make one distressing case into good law - it inevitably leads to bad law," Davis said. "We really need to provide support and palliative care for those who are suffering."
She added: "There's an assumption that suffering is the worst thing that can happen to you. If that were the case, you could justify getting rid of all sorts of people in society."
Several groups, including the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, supported Diane Pretty's application to the High Court. VES Director Deborah Annets said the case had brought the euthanasia issue to the forefront of public debate.
"This case has brought about a shift in the way that the issues of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are discussed," she said. "There is an increasing understanding that the individual's human rights must take precedence over what the medical profession feels is 'best for the patient.'
"Diane has said she will fight on. We wish her well and hope the Lords will agree to listen to her appeal," Annets said.
If the appeal to the House of Lords is unsuccessful, there is a possibility that the Prettys may carry the case further and appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
See Earlier Story:
Woman's 'Right To Die' Case Advances in UK (Aug. 31, 2001)