Has France reached a tipping point on legalizing euthanasia?

A pair of court decisions in favor of euthanasia – including the acquittal of a doctor charged with killing seven patients – gives momentum to legalization supporters.

Michel Euler/AP
Demonstrators dressed as mime artists hold placards which read "no to the euthanasia of elderly people, solidarity is urgent", at Trocadero plaza in Paris on Tuesday. One of France's top courts ruled Tuesday to permit the life support of a 38-year-old in a vegetative state be cut, in a case that has torn his family apart.

A pair of legal decisions in France this week – including the acquittal of a Kevorkian-esque doctor – have rekindled the country's debate over euthanasia, which remains against the law in a country where nine out of ten people support its legalization. 

On Wednesday, a French court acquitted Nicolas Bonnemaison who was accused of poisoning seven terminally ill patients between 2010 and 2011.

Dr. Bonnemaison never denied administering lethal injections to five women and two men who died under his care in a hospital in the southwestern town of Bayonne. But several of the deceased patients’ families testified that Bonnemaison had relieved their family members from intense suffering.

The prosecution of Bonnemaison, who if convicted faced life imprisonment, echoes that of the late Jack Kevorkian in the US, whose advocacy and performance of euthanasia for terminally patients was similarly controversial.

Catholic pro-life group Alliance Vita called the Bonnemaison ruling “absurd” and said they plan to appeal it. Just prior to the judge’s decision, around 600 of the group’s members dressed up as mimes and spread out across the Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris to protest against legalizing euthanasia.

The judge’s decision in the Bonnemaison case came a day after an equally important ruling in the case of a former fireman, left quadriplegic and in a vegetative state since a motorcycle accident six years ago. France’s highest administrative court ruled on Tuesday that Vincent Lambert should be taken off life support, in a case that has divided his family.

Mr. Lambert’s doctors, wife, and most of his siblings believe there is no possibility of recovery and that his care should be withdrawn, while his devout Catholic parents and one sister have fought tooth and nail to keep him alive.

Lambert’s parents have appealed the French ruling to the European Court of Human Rights. Just six hours after Tuesday's ruling, the European court suspended the decision to pull Lambert off life support. Lambert will be kept alive while the European court fully reviews the case.

A one-sided debate?

Both the Bonnemaison and Lambert cases highlight the limbo in which France currently finds itself on the euthanasia debate, pitting religious groups and the government against pro-euthanasia activists despite broad support for legalization.

Supporters of its legalization say the terminally ill should be allowed to “die with dignity” and that a current law on passive euthanasia doesn’t go far enough, while religious groups say improved palliative care would help relieve suffering and the desire to end life.

Despite the rift between the opposing sides, a poll released Thursday by BVA for dailies Le Parisien and Aujourd’hui showed that 89 percent of French people support legalizing euthanasia, and a recent IFOP poll puts that number closer to 92 percent. However, the practice remains illegal in France.

Following the Bonnemaison ruling, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said that the Socialists now had "a responsibility to develop the legislative framework" for euthanasia. President Francois Hollande promised to draft new right-to-die legislation during his election campaign in 2012, but for the moment a 2005 law allowing passive euthanasia remains the only end-of-life option in France.

The Leonetti Law states that treatment which is necessary to maintain life can be withheld or withdrawn, as long as it doesn’t involve “excessive obstinacy.” As many as 25,000 people die each year in France after being removed from medical support, according to the French government. 

Legalizing euthanasia would go further, by allowing physicians to administer the substances themselves to end life. Its legalization would add France to the small list of countries in Europe that currently permit euthanasia or assisted suicide, such as neighboring Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

On Wednesday, Britain faced a similar debate in a case involving two disabled men, after its Supreme Court ruled that a general prohibition of assisted suicide was incompatible with human rights.

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