Doctors begin halting life support for Frenchman in vegetative state

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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.
Quadriplegic Vincent Lambert has been in a vegetative state for the last decade. PHOTO: AFP

REIMS, FRANCE (AFP) - French doctors Monday (May 20) began switching off the life support of a quadriplegic man who has been in a vegetative state for the last decade, in a hugely controversial case that has divided France, the lawyer for his parents said.

The dispute over the fate of Vincent Lambert has split his own family and even become a subject of political tension in France ahead of the weekend's European elections.

His parents, devout Catholics, have repeatedly launched court action to keep him alive - in defiance of his wife and five siblings who are in favour of his right to die.

Doctors said the halt to his life-support would start Monday following a final judicial ruling to end the nutrition and hydration Lambert receives in the Sebastopol Hospital in the northern French city of Reims.

Jean Paillot, the lawyer for Vincent Lambert's parents, called it "shameful", adding: "They (the parents) could not even embrace their son." Other family sources also confirmed the systems were being switched off for the 42-year-old who was left quadriplegic with severe brain damage after a car accident in 2008.

The parents' legal team had on Sunday vowed to launch multiple legal challenges in a last-ditch bid to stop the systems being switched off.


Vincent Sanchez, the doctor treating Lambert who has been the target of the parents' anger, said in a message to the family that the "halting of treatments" and "profound and continued sedation" had been initiated.

In the message seen by AFP, he urged everyone to "rally around him (Vincent Lambert) so these moments are as peaceful, intimate and personal and possible." The parents' lawyers had at the weekend said they wanted Sanchez removed from the case and also struck off France's medical register.

In a statement, the parents' lawyers accused Sanchez of "violating all his obligations" while adding that "there is still time to stop this madness".

The family has been torn asunder by the case.

Lambert's wife Rachel, five of his siblings and his nephew Francois, have all backed the decision to begin switching off the systems, agreeing this is the humane path given his condition.

In 2014, doctors, backed by Lambert's wife and other family members, decided to stop his nutrition and hydration in line with France's passive euthanasia law.

But his parents, and his half-brother and sister obtained a court order to block the move on grounds his condition might improve with better treatment.

But early this year, a French court sided with Sanchez's decision to stop the care keeping Lambert alive.

The ruling was upheld last month by France's State Council which decides on the validity of laws and legal decisions.

The UN committee on disabled rights earlier this month asked France to suspend the decision to withdraw the life support, while it conducts its own investigation, which could take years.

Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said France would answer the committee, but was not under any legal requirement to abide by its request.


The issue has also become a political controversy in the run-up to this weekend's European elections.

Francois-Xavier Bellamy, a candidate in the European Parliament elections for the opposition Les Republicains, said he "could not understand the hurry" to switch off the support and called on President Emmanuel Macron to intervene.

"If we enter down a dangerous path which consists of saying a life that is dependent, one that is fragile, sick, is not one worth being lived, then we will build an inhumane world," he told French television.

He said that there were 1,500 patients in a similar position to Vincent Lambert in France. The parents had also asked Macron to intervene to stop what they called a "crime of the state".

But Nathalie Loiseau, who is standing for Macron's party in the elections, said the head of state could not reverse a court order.

"All he (Macron) can do is pardon someone who has been condemned and this is very different to what the parents of Vincent Lambert are requesting," she said, acknowledging that the parents were going though a "tragedy".

French law allows so-called "passive euthanasia" for seriously ill or injured patients with no chance of recovery, in which the means for keeping someone alive are cut off.

Active euthanasia, by which a person deliberately causes a patient's death, is illegal in France despite recent efforts to ease legislation dealing with the terminally ill.

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