Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

News

Court intervenes to save life of France’s ‘Terri Schiavo’

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

Analysis

May 14, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) - France’s “Terri Schiavo” shall live. A young man left to die of hunger because his doctor decided his quality of life after a car accident would no longer improve is being fed and hydrated again since Saturday, when his father and mother and two of his siblings obtained an emergency ruling. That ruling ordered the hospital where he is staying to restore all normal care.

This constitutes an extraordinary triumph over euthanasia by stealth, which is surely being implemented in France in many more cases than we shall ever know. Interestingly, Judge Catherine Monbrun ruled in favor of restoring food and water because of the obligation to “respect life,” as worded in the European Convention of Human Rights and because of the opposition of part of the young man’s family’s to his deliberate starvation and dehydration, the only objective of which was to obtain death.

Vincent Lambert, 37 – called “Hervé” in a previous article because his family did not want to communicate his real name at that point – had a car accident four and a half years ago. He was kept in an artificial coma for a time, and then stayed in a “vegetative coma” for about two years. Two years ago his condition improved and he is now in a minimally conscious state (MCS), definitely not a coma as a professor of neurology is now prepared to testify in his case.

Vincent has some interaction with his environment: he recognizes familiar faces and voices, is able to follow with his eyes and to respond to certain situations. He is completely dependent, but definitely alive. He is usually fed by a PEG tube because he has trouble swallowing, but can taste small quantities of food. He was taken out of hospital on several occasions, such as a family birthday party last September.

Seeing the young man cry every time she went to see him since April 25th, after she learned that he had not been fed since April 10th, and was receiving only 500 ml of water per 24 hours, prompted his mother to refer the matter to an administrative tribunal. This was on May 7th. Mrs. Lambert had been receiving assistance and advice from several lawyers and encouragements from pro-life doctors. A previous attempt to get the local bishop to intervene was unsuccessful. The case was complicated by the fact that several of Vincent’s brothers and sisters as well as his wife were convinced by Vincent's doctor that “letting him go” was the best solution.

The timing could not have been worse. May 8th is a holiday in France – it commemorates the end of World War II – and Ascension Thursday, on May 9th this year, is also a public holiday. The administrative tribunal of Châlons-en-Champagne, which is competent for affairs concerning Reims where the decision to starve Vincent was taken in a public university hospital, was also exceptionally closed on the Friday.

The family's lawyer, Jérôme Triomphe, first tried to obtain police action to put a stop to Vincent Lambert’s slow agony. He faxed a letter to the public prosecutor headed “Urgent, mortal danger”. This was followed by a police visit to Vincent’s bedside, but nothing further happened. Mr. and Mrs. Lambert realized that the medical staff of the Sebastopol university hospital of Reims would not budge, even under the threat of being sued for attempted murder.

On Thursday morning Triomphe seized the administrative tribunal using an emergency proceeding. This was more successful: in view of Vincent Lambert’s waning forces, an exceptional hearing was scheduled for Saturday morning, showing that the affair was being taken in earnest. Another pro-life lawyer, Jean Paillot, who specializes in medical bioethics, joined Triomphe to expound the need to respect and sustain life, which is the core of doctors’ responsibility.

“I felt I was pleading for the life of a man under a death sentence. More than that: I felt inspired by a force that was not my own”, Jérôme Triomphe told Lifesite. The death penalty was abolished in France in 1982; for a young barrister whose career started no more than a dozen years ago, the feeling that the fate of a human being hangs on the outcome of one’s speech was a heavy weight.

Judge Monbrun is probably the first French judge to rule on the “Leonetti Law”, which in 2005 set patients’ rights as regards “end of life”. This legislation promotes palliative care for the dying. It seeks to avoid “unreasonable medical obstinacy”. It also makes the proper distinction between medical treatment or abstention of medical treatment chosen in order to obtain maximum comfort of the patient, even at the risk of shortening his or her life, and active medical choices whose objective is to obtain the patient’s death – which are clearly prohibited. But playing on confusion between ordinary and extraordinary care, the legislation allows for non-terminally ill patients, who have no hope of recovery, to be deprived of nourishment, and to a large extent of hydration, in order to achieve death.

This point of the law is widely unknown to the French public, or at least does not strike the layman as constituting a legalization of euthanasia: most commentators have touted the “Leonetti Law” as falling short of allowing “mercy killing”. The law itself speaks of withholding “treatment,” not ordinary care such as nourishment and hydration. But its preparatory texts and a subsequent report on its implementation by the member of the National Assembly whose name it bears, Jean Leonetti, clearly allow the procedure.

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Few moral authorities underlined this at the time the law was adopted; a notable exception was Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, who in 2009 published a joint text with the then Grand Rabbi of Paris, David Messas, to make clear that withholding food and water in order to obtain the death of a patient is never acceptable.

The law and its accompanying decrees do establish a procedure which doctors must implement when deciding to stop “treatment”: they are obliged to follow the patient’s own will, or if the patient is incapable of expressing it, to seek the opinion of a person he has designated, should there be one, and also of his family and near ones.

This does not, of course, make the decision to kill by starvation more morally acceptable, but it does put a brake on the law.

In this case the allegations by Mr. and Mrs. Lambert that they had been in no way associated with the decision to starve their son to death, nor informed of its implementation as of April 10th, were corroborated by the responsible doctor himself in court. When challenged by Triomphe, the doctor said: “It would be monstrous to ask a patient’s family their view about this collegiate decision. Such a decision should be made by doctors and by no-one else.” Licensed to kill?

Judge Monbrun did not rule, as she could have done, given that euthanasia is not legal in France and that the law explicitly prohibits direct killing of a patient by the medical staff, that the decision to withhold food and drink from Vincent Lambert was of itself illegal. But she did condemn the doctor’s refraining from informing Vincent’s parents of his “collegiate decision”, which was made by and with the medical staff, and she explicitly condemned the fact that he “did not take Vincent’s parents wishes into account”. And she quoted Vincent’s right to obtain respect for his life under the European convention.

The case is in fact doubly remarkable: on the one hand, the affair has brought into the light the fact that today, in France, a doctor can legally decide to bring about the death of a patient, and even of a patient who is not terminally ill. On the other, the right of those who want to prevent this form of killing of a family member has been clearly confirmed, even when some of the patient’s loved ones favor the decision, as became obvious in court.

But why did the doctor and his staff at the Reims hospital decide to start starving Vincent to death in the first place? The answer also came during the hearing: they alleged that in January, Vincent began to give “signs of behavioral opposition to ‘nursing’ care” which induced them to “suspect” that there existed on his part a “refusal to live”, and motivated an “ethical deliberation by the medical team” on his case.

That was all. That was enough to justify, in their eyes, the putting to death of an otherwise healthy patient.

I had Jérôme Triomphe on the telephone minutes after he received notice of the judge’s prescription to restore food and water for Vincent Lambert, at the end of Saturday afternoon. It was a deeply emotional moment. The Lambert family and their lawyer were overjoyed to notify the medical staff in nearby Reims of the decision – but they were not expecting to find Vincent’s doctor in a state of rage at the decision.

Triomphe overheard the doctor saying that no matter, he would simply take a new collegiate decision to withdraw food and water from Vincent, this time abiding by the rules. As Vincent’s lawyer, Triomphe immediately tackled the doctor over this, retorting that recommencing the procedure would be illegal, the previous “collegiate decision” having been annulled by the administrative tribunal. Such a decision cannot be made in the future if the patient’s parents are opposed to it, he said.

The aggressive attitude of part of Vincent’s family and of the medical staff at the Reims hospital have led his parents and their lawyer to seek new accommodation for him in a medical home where his condition can be more properly dealt with.



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