Pretty v. United Kingdom

App. No. 2346/02, 35 Eur. H.R. Rep. 1 (2002).
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Applicant, a U.K. national, alleged that English law violated her rights under Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (freedom from torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment), 8 (right to respect for his private and family life) and 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention), when she was physically unable to legally commit suicide and the English law prevented her from exercising this right with assistance.

Applicant was dying of a physically debilitating disease with no cure, but her intellect and capacity to make decisions were unimpaired. Given that the final stages of the disease were distressing and undignified, she wished to control how and when she died, although she was physically unable to do so.

While committing suicide is lawful under English law, it is a crime to assist another to commit suicide under section 2 § 1 of the Suicide Act 1961. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) refused applicant’s request to guarantee her husband freedom from prosecution if he helped her. Her appeals against that decision have been unsuccessful, and she turned to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Court unanimously found no violations of Articles 2, 3, 8, 9 and 14 of the Convention. It ruled that a right to die, whether at the hands of a third person or with the assistance of a public authority, cannot be derived from Article 2. Still, the Court found that the Applicant's case fell within the scope of Article 8 of the Convention. The applicant's plea of violation of Article 8 in conjunction with Article 14 was centered around her claim that "she was prevented from exercising a right enjoyed by others who could end their lives without assistance because they were not prevented by any disability from doing so." The government's blanket ban on all assisted suicide was allegedly the source of this discrimination, and it could not be justified in this case since the applicant was not one of the class of vulnerable people the law was designed to protect. In this case, the Court found it reasonable not to create different regimes for those able and those unable to commit suicide, as the "borderline between the two categories will 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."

"53. In the present case, it is beyond dispute that the respondent State has not, itself, inflicted any ill-treatment on the applicant. Nor is there any complaint that the applicant is not receiving adequate care from the State medical authorities. The situation of the applicant is therefore not comparable with that in D. v. the United Kingdom, in which an AIDS sufferer was threatened with removal from the United Kingdom to the island of St Kitts where no effective medical or palliative treatment for his illness was available and he would have been exposed to the risk of dying under the most distressing circumstances. The responsibility of the State would have been engaged by its act ("treatment") of removing him in those circumstances. There is no comparable act or "treatment" on the part of the United Kingdom in the present case.

54. The applicant has claimed rather that the refusal of the DPP to give an undertaking not to prosecute her husband if he assisted her to commit suicide and the criminal-law prohibition on assisted suicide disclose inhuman and degrading treatment for which the State is responsible as it will thereby be failing to protect her from the suffering which awaits her as her illness reaches its ultimate stages. This claim, however, places a new and extended construction on the concept of treatment, which, as found by the House of Lords, goes beyond the ordinary meaning of the word. While the Court must take a dynamic and flexible approach to the interpretation of the Convention, which is a living instrument, any interpretation must also accord with the fundamental objectives of the Convention and its coherence as a system of human rights protection. Article 3 must be construed in harmony with Article 2, which hitherto has been associated with it as reflecting basic values respected by democratic societies. As found above, Article 2 of the Convention is first and foremost a prohibition on the use of lethal force or other conduct which might lead to the death of a human being and does not confer any right on an individual to require a State to permit or facilitate his or her death." Page 32.