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 Euthanasia Monday, 23 December, 2002, 10:28 GMT
Euthanasia and the law
What is the current criminal law on deliberate euthanasia in Britain and other European states? Ursula Smartt, Senior Lecturer at Law and Criminology at Thames Valley University in West London, explains.

In April 2001, The Netherlands became the first European country to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. Since January 2002, stringent Dutch constitutional legislation has been in place, whereby regional euthanasia committees, made up of judges, medical and ethical professionals, assisted by a second medical opinion, can grant incurable patients' requests (including children above the age of 12 - 15 with parental consent) to have their life shortened by a medical expert.

Belgium followed suit in May 2002, with similar legislation. Switzerland is about to adopt similar legislation. In September 2002, Mario Verstraete, a 39-year-old suffering from multiple sclerosis, was the first Belgian to die by lethal injection.

Euthanasia is popularly taken to mean the practice of assisting severely ill people to die, either at their request or by taking the decision to withdraw life support.

In English law, positive or 'active' euthanasia occurs when treatment is administered to intentionally take the life of a person (see Dr. Arthur's Case [1985] Crim LR 705). The leading case in the UK was the High Court's decision in Bland.

The High Court permitted the hospital doctors to switch off the 17-year-old Anthony Bland's life support machine (affirmed by the House of Lords in Airedale National Health Service Trust v Bland [1993] AC 789). Anthony had been a victim of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and had been in a persistent vegetative state for three and a half years.

Though euthanasia remains unlawful in the UK, there have been recent cases that have advanced the legal, medical and ethical debate. Diane Pretty, aged 43, lost her British and European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case in March 2002, where she had sought permission for her husband to administer a lethal dose of morphine to end her suffering of motor neuron disease (Pretty v DPP [2002]).

Her petition failed and Ms Pretty died in May 2002. Though the ECHR in Strasbourg was not willing to intervene in the Pretty case, it left a 'margin of appreciation' to individual Member States of the EU for judicial review in such cases. The case of Miss B in the same year was slightly different.

Paralysed from the neck down, she had been left quadriplegic after a blood vessel in her neck ruptured. Miss B too had to litigate in March 2002 in order to die.

She convened the High Court (hospital visiting division) around her hospital bedside, in order to achieve a medical direction to discontinue her life-saving treatment by means of a ventilator.

With Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss presiding, the Court decided that Miss B's refusal was valid because it did not need for another person to assist in her suicide.

In September 2000, the Court of Appeal had raised the issue whether an operation to separate Siamese twins 'Jodie and Mary', born at a Manchester hospital in August, would amount to the unlawful killing of the weaker sister Mary.

The Maltese parents of the girls had appealed against a High Court ruling on strictly religious grounds. Three Appeal Court judges ruled that the operation should go ahead.

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