April 24, 2024

Furious debate in France over ending the life of brain-damaged man

The case of Vincent Lambert has split the nation

In a case which has divided France as Terri Schiavo’s did in the US, a Frenchman who has been in a vegetative state for more than 10 years has had a last-minute reprieve from dying after doctors turned off his life support.

Vincent Lambert, now 42, became a quadriplegic and was badly brain damaged in a car accident in 2008. His wife, who is his legal guardian, and some of his siblings asked doctors remove life support in 2014. His parents wanted to keep him alive and have been fighting in the courts ever since. Euthanasia is illegal in France, but there is a provision for removing hydration and nutrition and allowing a heavily-sedated patient to die of thirst and starvation.

So Lambert became the flashpoint for a bitter debate over the “right to die” in France as his relatives slugged it out in the courts.

Lambert can breathe on his own and opens and moves his eyes; his parents insist that he is not terminally ill and that he may be able to communicate.  

The French Society for Palliative Care said this week that Mr. Lambert was in “a situation of artificial prolongation of life, as a result of medical action,” and that taking him off life support was justified.

But dozens of French doctors countered in an op-ed in Le Monde that Lambert’s condition had been stable for years and that it was impossible to be certain about his state of consciousness.  

French President Emmanuel Macron rejected calls by the parents to intervene, saying “the decision to stop treatment was taken after a constant dialogue between his doctors and his wife, who is his legal representative”. Pope Francis also chimed in: “Let us always safeguard life, God's gift, from its beginning until its natural end. Let us not give in to a throwaway culture.”  

According to the New York Times, there are about 1,500 to 1,700 people in France with serious brain damage similar to Lambert’s, but that requests to cease artificial hydration and nutrition are rare, and that normally families and doctors agreed about end-of-life decisions.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge   

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