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Euthanasia and the Law

Euthanasia is illegal in the UK, as it is in other European countries apart from the Netherlands.

Diane and Brian Pretty fought for her right to die in the courts rather than break the law.

However, many people believe it is inevitable the practice will eventually become widely tolerated.

Moreover, grey areas in the law already exist that can cause confusion and controversy.

'Double effect'

A doctor can legally give a terminally ill patient large doses of an opiate like morphine - even if they know it may shorten their life.

As long as the intention is to ease suffering, they cannot be prosecuted for murder.

Known as the principle of "double effect", many doctors admit they have administered lethal doses of drugs - the important factor being that death was not the primary intention.

Acts and omissions

The official policy of the British Medical Association is to oppose all forms of euthanasia.

However, many doctors and medical ethicists would say that there is a difference between committing an act that results in a patient's death, and omitting to carry out an act that would save a life.

"Active" euthanasia occurs when a doctor administers medication intending it will shorten a patient's life.

Many doctors would argue there reaches a point in the care of a patient where agressive medical treatment is no longer of any benefit.

And since the 1989 Bland ruling (see case histories article), basic nutrition and hydration count as medical treatment.

If Diane had been dependent on artificial ventilation to keep her alive she could have legally asked for it to be withdrawn - as in the recent case of "Miss B".

Because she wasn't, her only choice would have been to ask for her feeding tube to be removed, but this would mean starving to death - something she did not want to do.

Human Rights

The Prettys believed that the UK courts were contravening Diane's human right to die with dignity at a time of her chosing, so they took the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Their plea was dismissed unanimously by the seven judges, who explained their decision by saying:

"No right to die, whether at the hands of a third person or with the assistance of a public authority, could be derived."

Legal avenues having been exhausted, the only path left open to them was to lobby the government to change the law to allow voluntary euthanasia.


Euthanasia has been commonplace in Holland for 25 years, and legal challenge has been rare.

Despite the massive public support there are fears that bad practice is leading to abuse of the laws in the country.

There are claims that many doctors are failing to carry out the necessary checks or contact the appropriate authorities.

Euthanasia has not been a criminal offence in Holland since 1984, when courts and the Royal Dutch Medical Association drew up ten clearly defined official guidelines and conditions for doctors.

Since 2000, a change in Dutch law removed any possibility that doctors will be prosecuted for carrying out euthanasia.

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Panorama: Please Help Me Die looks at the case of Diane Pretty


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29 Apr 02 | Health
British woman denied right to die

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