Doctors treating French quadriplegic Vincent Lambert, who has been in a deep vegetative state for more than a decade, plan to stop feeding him this week, renewing a furious debate over the right-to-die that has split France and Lambert’s family.
Lambert, a former psychiatric nurse, has been completely paralysed since a motorcycle accident in 2008. He has almost no consciousness but is able to breath without a respirator and occasionally moves his eyes.
His wife Rachel supports ending his care and letting him die and is supported by several of Lambert’s siblings. But Lambert’s Catholic parents are adamant that he should be kept alive and are supported by other family members.
Lambert’s doctor, Vincent Sanchez, told the family on May 10 that he intended to stop providing treatment during the week of May 20, but it is not clear exactly when that reduction in care will take place and when it might lead to Lambert’s death.
Lambert, 42, is fed food and water through a gastric tube at a hospital in Reims, northeastern France.
The case is the most high-profile in the right-to-die debate in France, with Rachel Lambert pursuing it to the European Court of Human Rights and the parents having appealed to French President Emmanuel Macron to intervene to keep Lambert alive.
Euthanasia is illegal in France, but in 2016 a law was introduced giving terminally ill patients the right to be put into continuous deep sedation (CDS) by doctors until death. The law draws a distinction between euthanasia and CDS, making France the first country to legislate in such a way.
Euthanasia is, however, permitted in various forms in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and Canada, while assisted suicide, which involves a doctor helping a patient to end their own lives, is permitted in several U.S. states.
In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that French doctors could take Lambert off life-support, but the decision was not carried out by doctors.
Lambert’s parents have launched several legal appeals to try to block their son’s sedation, including to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has called on France to delay while it investigates further.
But France’s health minister, Agnes Buzyn, has said there is nothing more that can be done to stop the case.
“All legal avenues pursued by Vincent Lambert’s parents have reached their end and at this point all legal bodies, whether national or European, confirm the fact the medical team is entitled to stop care,” she told BFM TV on May 5.