As Canada edges towards legalizing euthanasia, France is facing a minefield of its own over the issue, spurred in part by a French court’s recent decision to refuse a wife’s petition to deny her brain-damaged husband food and water.
Thirty-eight-year-old Vincent Lambert was involved in a car accident five years ago that left him a tetraplegic – paralyzed in all four limbs and in a large portion of his torso as well. Initially, Lambert was considered to be in a persistent vegetative state, but according to LifeSiteNews’ correspondent in Paris, doctors have since changed that assessment to “minimally conscious state,” wherein Lambert is reported to perceive and respond to pain and a general condition of well-being, as well as move his eyes to respond to stimuli and react to the presence of his loved ones. While Lambert cannot, as far as the medical team can determine at this point, communicate meaningfully, he is otherwise physically in good health and is certainly not dead or dying.
That nearly changed nearly ten months ago, however, when Dr. Eric Kariger, head of the geriatric and palliative care unit of the Reims University Hospital, put Lambert on “end of life protocol,” a decision that entailed removing all food from the otherwise healthy man. Kariger based his decision not on Lambert’s physical condition, but on his belief that Lambert would not have wanted to be kept alive, and that his quality of life was essentially non-existent in his current state.
France has consistently denied a right to euthanasia or assisted suicide in the past but did, in 2005, legalize a procedure known as “passive euthanasia,” wherein doctors are permitted to allow death by removing or withholding the treatment necessary to prevent it. Under the law, this decision can be made only by the patient himself or, in the case of an unconscious patient, by a legally designated representative, chosen by the patient himself.
Yet despite the clarity of the law and the fact that Lambert is by no means dying, or even ill, it took 31 days and a vigorous battle by Lambert’s parents to see the man’s nutritional supply reinstated via court order. The emergency injunction was issued based on the fact that the doctor’s decision had been made without consulting the majority of Lambert’s family. The decision was appealed by Kariger and, in a move eerily similar to the United State’s case involving Terri Schiavo, by Lambert’s own wife and nephew, both of whom are also fighting for food and water to be removed from the handicapped man, arguing that the decision would be in accordance with his wishes.
In the nine months following the court’s life-saving order, Lambert’s wife and nephew have, along with Kariger, fought vigorously to end the man’s life, forcing France to face the euthanasia debate once again. Most notably, little of the appellate arguments centered on interpreting the actual law. Instead, counsel for Kariger and Lambert’s wife focused mainly on making philosophical arguments that Lambert’s condition renders his life meaningless, and that he would not choose to live this way, if he could.
Counsel for Lambert’s parents immediately honed in on the inappropriateness of centering the debate around those two issues, with Jean Paillot, a barrister specializing in medical ethics, poignantly arguing that “[j]udging a life’s meaningfulness is in contradiction with human dignity. I come from Alsace, where under the abominable Nazi regime certain people were considered as Untermenschen. Should some people not live because they cannot have interpersonal relations? And Vincent Lambert does have a form of relationship with others,” he said. “And as to what he wants now, no-one is in a position to know.”
The second barrister on behalf of Lambert’s parents gave an equally passionate defense of Lambert’s rights, pointing out that the man’s complete vulnerability requires even more protection because he cannot express his desires, and that this case was based on the “safeguard of a fundamental liberty” and the “respect of his right to life.” Both barristers also focused on the reality that no one is truly in a position to judge whether he is, as Dr. Kariger asserts, responding to treatment in a way that would evidence his desire for nutrition and hydration to end.
The Administrative Court of Chalons-en-Champagne entered a judgment in favor of Lambert’s parents on January 16, with a ruling broadly in favor of protecting not only Lambert, but others in similar situations. In a relatively sweeping ruling, the court held that Lambert did indeed have a “fundamental right to life” and that the hospital’s actions were “a serious and manifestly illegal” abridgment of these rights. The court went on to find that “the signs of his willingness to die could not be determined with sufficient certainty [and have been] over-interpreted” by the medical team, and that nutrition and hydration were “neither unnecessary nor disproportionate and [were] not intended only for the artificial maintenance of life.”
While the battle is won for now, however, the war is far from over. Just a few days ago, Lambert’s wife filed an appeal of the court’s decision, making it likely that Lambert’s parents will be, once again, engaged in a fight for their son’s life, and that the French courts will be asked to make a determination as to what constitutes true quality of life – “[s]omething,” the barrister for Lambert’s parents noted in court, “no judge should do.”