The European Court of Human Rights rejected Mrs Pretty’s complaint that her rights under articles 2, 3, 8, 9 and 14 had been violated. (See also Pretty v DPP)
Human Rights – right to die – right to life – inhuman and degrading treatment
Mrs Pretty argued that the right to die was the corollary of the article 2 right to life and was also protected. There was therefore a positive obligation on the State to provide a scheme in domestic law to enable her to exercise that right. The Court was not persuaded that the ‘right to life’ could be interpreted as involving a negative aspect. Art 2 not only required the State to refrain from the unlawful and intentional taking of life, but imposed a positive obligation to take appropriate steps to safeguard life by putting in place effective criminal-law provisions, which could extend to an obligation to take preventative operational measures to protect an individual whose life was at risk from the criminal acts of another individual. Art 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. Accordingly, no right to die, whether at the hands of a third person, or with the assistance of a public authority, could be derived from art 2.
The Court also rejected Mrs Pretty’s argument that in refusing to grant her husband immunity from prosecution so that he could assist with her suicide, the State was in breach of its positive obligation to protect her from being subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. The Court noted that there was no question here of the State having inflicted any ill-treatment on Mrs Pretty, nor any complaint that she was not receiving care from the medical authorities. Article 3 had to be constructed in harmony with art 2 and the positive obligation which Mrs Pretty argued for would not involve the removal or mitigation of harm by, for instance, preventing any ill-treatment by public bodies or private individuals or providing improved conditions or care; it would require that the State sanction actions intended to terminate life, an obligation that could not be derived from art 3 of the Convention.
The denial, by law, of Mrs Pretty’s choice to avoid what she considered would be an undignified and distressing end to her life was an interference with her right to respect for private life as guaranteed under art 8. However, States were entitled to regulate activities which were detrimental to the life and safety of other individuals, through the operation of the general criminal law, and the Court did not consider the blanket ban on assisted suicide to be disproportionate. The interference could be justified as ‘necessary in a democratic society’ for the protection of the rights of others and, accordingly, there has been no violation of art 8.
The Court found that Mrs Pretty’s views on assisted suicide did not involve a form of manifestation of a religion or belief, through worship, teaching, practice or observance as described in art 9 and therefore there had been no violation.
There was, in the Court’s view, objective and reasonable justification for not distinguishing in law between those who are and those who are not physically capable of committing suicide. The borderline between the two categories 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 Suicide Act 1961 was intended to safeguard and greatly increase the risk of abuse.