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France

UN to intervene on French case of passive euthanasia

media François Lambert, the nephew of Vincent Lambert, stands in front of the hospital where his uncle has been kept alive since 2008 in Reims April 9, 2018 AFP / Francois NASCIMBENI

France is being asked to halt any moves to withdraw life support from a man who has been kept in a vegetative state since 2008, following a bitter legal dispute among his family.

Vincent Lambert, a psychiatric nurse, was involved in a car accident in 2008 which left him a quadriplegic with severe brain damage.

From that point on, he was kept alive through artificial nutrition and hydration at a hospital in Reims, France.

Passive euthanisation

But, in 2014, doctors attending to Lambert along with his wife Rachel, five of his siblings and nephew decided it would be best to stop feeding and hydrating him through artificial means in keeping with France’s passive euthanasia law.

Contrary to Belgium, the Netherlands or Switzerland, active euthanasia and assisted suicide are practices condemned in France. A doctor is not allowed to directly end a patient’s life through injection of a lethal substance.

The death of a patient towards the end of his or her life must not be provoked directly through a doctor injecting a lethal substance.

However, France’s Leonetti law, created on 22 April 2005, does allow doctors, in agreement with the patient or the loved ones of the patient, to stop a rigourous treatment. Hence the ‘passive’ nature of euthanasia in the country.

The Law of 22 April 2005, regarding the rights of those ill or at the end of their live – the famous Leonetti law – was adopted with the goal to avoid “therapeutic relentlessness” (or unreasonable obstinancy) in the treatment of a patient towards the end of his or her life. In this specific instance, the text allows the doctors, in agreement with the patient or his/her loved ones, to stop a heavy medical treatment, if the care has been deemed unnecessary or disproportionate.
Guillaume Jacquot, Public Senate

Legal action

After learning that artificial life support to their son would be stopped, Lambert’s parents and his half-brother and sister obtained a court order to halt the move.

Devout Catholics, they claimed his condition might improve with a better treatment.

French courts have mainly backed the doctors to withdraw life support for Lambert, now 42.

The parents then appealed to the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, which also confirmed the decision.

And so the parents appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and the UN committee on disabled rights.

A ruling last week by the European court rejected their appeal for a suspension of France’s decision.

However, the UN committee accepted it, asking France to wait six months while it prepares its observations on the case.

In response, France’s Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said while the UN’s request is not legally binding, it would abide by it.

“We are not legally bound by this committee, but of course we will take into account what the UN says and we will respond” said Buzyn on Sunday to French media BFMTV.

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