Europe court upholds French decision to allow vegetative man to die

STRASBOURG, France (AFP) - Europe's rights court upheld on Friday the decision of a French court to allow a man in a vegetative state to be taken off life support, in a ruling that could become a benchmark on the continent.

For over a year the fate of Vincent Lambert, who was left severely brain damaged and quadriplegic as a result of a 2008 road accident, has torn apart his family in a judicial tug-of-war over his right to die.

Lambert's mother Viviane says her son is merely handicapped and any attempt to stop life-sustaining treatment would amount to "disguised euthanasia" while his wife Rachel insists he would not want to be kept alive artificially.

A panel of judges at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights voted 12 to five that a French court decision to stop intravenously feeding Lambert did not violate Europe rights laws.

The legal drama began in January 2014, when Lambert's doctors, backed by his wife and six of his eight siblings, decided to stop the intravenous food and water keeping him alive in line with a 2005 passive euthanasia law in France.

However, his deeply devout Catholic parents, half-brother and sister won an urgent court application to stop the plan.

In an appeal, the French supreme administrative court, known as the State Council, ordered three doctors to draw up a report on Lambert's condition and in June ruled that the decision to withdraw care from a man with no hope of recovery was lawful.

Lambert's parents then took the case to Europe's rights court which ordered France to keep the patient alive while it decided whether the State Council's decision was in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.

While the decision relating to the contentious euthanasia debate is likely to have an impact across Europe, the bitter Lambert family battle is set to continue in France.

The decision to stop intravenous food and water "was taken by a doctor and can only be carried out by this doctor", said Jean Paillot, the lawyer for Lambert's parents said before the court made its decision.

However this doctor is no longer working with Lambert and his parents plan on seeking a new medical decision and taking it to court once again if it goes against their wishes.

Laurent Pettiti, the lawyer for Lambert's wife Rachel said it was difficult to imagine "how an administrative judge could go against the decision of the European Court and State Council." Ahead of the court ruling on Friday, Lambert's mother Viviane said she was "very disappointed" in the family wrangling.

"We know our son better" than the family members seeking to stop life-sustaining care, she told French television.

She said he had "never left a note" explaining his wishes.

Viviane believes her son is showing signs of progress, such as lifting his leg or swallowing and just needs better care. His parents want him moved to a new medical facility.

"They are trying to make us say we don't want him to go, but it is not at all the case, we don't want him to be snuffed out," she said earlier this year.

Bernard Jeanblanc, the head doctor at the Strasbourg clinic where Lambert's parents want him moved, said the patient was "not in a vegetative state" but had a degree of consciousness which enabled him to interact with his environment.

His wife Rachel told AFP in an earlier interview that her husband would "never have wanted to be kept in this state." "Keeping him alive artificially, it is unbearable compared to the man he was." Euthanasia is illegal in France but Francois Hollande pledged in his 2012 presidential campaign to look into the issue.

In March, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of a law allowing medics to place terminally-ill patients into a deep sleep until they die.

The law also makes "living wills" - drafted by people who do not want to be kept alive artificially if they are too ill to decide - legally binding on doctors.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg as well as in the US states of Vermont, Oregon and Washington.