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Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

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Vincent Lambert’s death is a tragedy for the Church and the world: Here’s what we can learn

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

ANALYSIS

July 11, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Vincent Lambert, France’s Terri Schiavo, died on Thursday, July 11 at 8:24 a.m. Paris time in a room of the geriatrics and palliative care department of Reims University Hospital, where he had been kept under lock and key for the last six years. The tetraplegic and brain-damaged 42-year-old man, who suffered terrible injuries during a road accident 11 years ago, did not die of illness or injury, but because he was deliberately deprived of food and fluids in order for his vital organs to fail and thus provoke death.

It is the tragic but inevitable epilogue to an end-of-life procedure against which parents Viviane and Pierre as well as two of his siblings, David and Anne, had fought as long as there was hope for Vincent to live and recover from the damage done by a cruel and inhuman dehydration and starvation process.

Last Monday, they published a statement indicating that they would no longer be attempting to obtain a reversal of the process because nothing could be done to reverse the lethal effects of the dehydration to which Vincent had been submitted for nearly a week.

Finally, Vincent’s agony will have lasted nine days and nights: a very long time with regard to the barbaric treatment he received, dying of thirst under the eyes of his loved ones who could not even give him a drink.

Even worse, Viviane told LifeSiteNews on Wednesday morning that her son received no deep sedation and that during the first days of his agony, he was moaning and groaning, gasping for breath, and crying. He also had quieter moments but his eyes were open and he reacted to Viviane when she talked to him until then.

How much did he suffer? And for how long? These are questions that will never be answered. The deep sedation process provided for in the Leonetti end-of-life law is intended to prevent any kind of suffering, as a precautionary measure.

In practice, when used on the elderly and the terminally ill, this deep and legally irreversible sedation prevents the dying from having awareness of their last moments and from communicating with their family members, sometimes making reconciliations and confessions impossible.

But in Vincent’s case, it would at least have made sure – insofar as that is possible, given the mystery of human consciousness – that he not suffer from the terrible pangs of thirst and dehydration that would ultimately kill him.

As far as is known at the present time, Dr. Vincent Sanchez – who implemented the end-of-life decision – was either unable or unwilling to explain the situation to family members. Half-nephew François Lambert, who repeatedly spoke with the press during the last week, went on record as saying the procedure was “sadistic,” repeating that a fully-fledged euthanasia law would be more humane.

Pope, bishops react

In the wake of the complaint filed by Pierre and Viviane for “attempted willful murder on a vulnerable person” last Friday, the prosecutor of the Republic in Reims has demanded an autopsy on Vincent Lambert’s body. He has also asked for Rachel Lambert, the deceased’s wife and guardian, to be questioned. Her legal counsel, Francis Fossier, called the decision a “grave error on the part of the judiciary,” adding: “You imagine you’re going through perpetual mourning and on the day everything seems to have been appeased, when you hope there will be a reconciliation within the family, this is what happens. It’s just adding to people’s suffering.”

Three hours after Vincent died, Pope Francis tweeted: “May God the Father welcome Vincent Lambert in His arms. Let us not build a civilization that discards persons those whose lives we no longer consider to be worthy of living: every life is valuable, always.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah also published a tweet shortly after news of Vincent’s death was broadcast: “On this sad day, I pray for the eternal repose of the soul of Vincent Lambert, who died a martyr, victim to the terrifying folly of the men of our time. I pray for his family and in particular for his parents, who are so courageous and so worthy. Let us not be afraid. God is watching.”

A number of French bishops also reacted to the news. Bishop Benoit-Gonnin of Beauvais said, “We are saddened by the epilogue of the drama that ended with the death of a person [who] was not at the end of his life.”

“The culture of death cannot have the last word,” wrote Bishop Matthieu Rougé of Nanterre, asking that “our society question itself about the respect and accompaniment given to the most fragile.”

Bishop Marc Aillet of Bayonne spoke of his “sadness” and “bitterness,” asking the priests of his diocese to offer Masses, this Thursday or Friday, for the intentions of the deceased.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris and Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon had already asked all the priests of their respective dioceses to do the same yesterday.

Two French bishops, other religious leaders express ‘confidence in the doctors of our country’

Reactions on the part of other religious leaders were less than adequate.

In Reims, where the drama unfolded over the last six years, an “interreligious declaration” was published, signed by the local rabbi Amar, imam Aomar Bendaoud of the Grande Mosque of Reims, Protestant pastors Xavier Langlois and Pascal Geoffroy, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, and his auxiliary bishop, Bruno Feillet.

They wrote, in particular:

1. We fully recognize that it is proper to the dignity of every human being to renounce treatment deemed unnecessary, disproportionate or likely to cause additional suffering, as long as such a decision does not endanger the life of any other person...

4. We would like to thank all those who have contributed to the reflection on the situation at the end of life and on the singular situation of people in a state of minimal consciousness, who neither fall entirely into the category of sick people nor completely into that of people with disabilities. Medical and philosophical research is undoubtedly still necessary to accompany them as well as possible. We also think it is necessary to reflect on the practice of resuscitation. We believe it is important to continue careful and in-depth discussions on these medical and ethical issues.

5. We express our confidence in the doctors of our country. Our collective trust in their scientific and human capacities is necessary so that they can continue to make the best and wisest medical decisions by engaging in a genuine dialogue with people at the end of their lives or the relatives of people who have become unable to communicate.

This statement did not make clear that the administration of food and fluids, be it through a gastric feeding tube, is not treatment but rather care that is always due. It also proclaims “trust” in doctors who were in fact severely criticized by many of their peers for their handling of the Vincent Lambert case, at a time when his own father and mother are grieving the death of a son who was killed by a medical decision.

Troubling statement from Pontifical Academy for Life’s Archbishop Paglia

Even more disappointing was the article published on Wednesday, a day before Vincent died, in the Italian magazine Famiglia christiana. It was written by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

He wrote:

On Friday 28 June, the French Court of Cassation ruled against the ban on suspending Vincent Lambert's artificial feeding and hydration. This ban was imposed by the Court of Appeal at the request of the United Nations International Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ICRPD), that had been interrogated by the lawyers of the patient's parents. The hassles associated with orders and counter-orders from authoritative judicial bodies clearly indicate the difficulty of the situation.

Vincent Lambert's drama has taken on a media resonance and a symbolic meaning that goes beyond the singularity of his situation. Multiple levels are intertwined: family, medical, legal, political and media. All this makes it very difficult to make ethical judgments, especially because clinical data are very complex and not directly accessible in all their details.

For its part, the French Bishops' Conference stressed that it did not have the competence to express itself on the concrete case, avoiding substituting itself for the conscience of those responsible for the decision, but rather making its own contribution to enlighten the way to the judgment.

It was therefore limited to a few general considerations, without claiming to be involved in the assessment of the case, in particular because it was impossible to obtain all the necessary information.

The painful family conflict over the hypothesis of the suspension of artificial feeding and hydration, since access to the knowledge of the patient's wishes is excluded – an essential element in assessing the proportionality of treatment – has led to a deadlock that has lasted for years.

The ethical issue is therefore intertwined in the legal sphere. The use of judicial means has made the conflict more rigid and exacerbated it. 

Without going into the technical details of the sentence, it can be said that the Supreme Court examined the choice of suspension (of treatment), which was taken by doctors after collegial discussions, and was compatible with the law currently in force in France.

But in this long and protracted controversy, opposition (between the parties) has invaded the public sphere, with wide media coverage, taking the form of a battle between those who are for and those who are against euthanasia. The bishops first clearly reaffirmed the negativity of this practice. They also drew attention to the importance of the weakest for the construction of social conviviality. And they highlighted the impact that the choice to stop treatment can have on those in similar situations (about 1,700 people in France), their families and health professionals. This observation is particularly relevant.

In addition, other recent cases, such as those of Alfie Evans in England and Noa Pathoven in the Netherlands, have also deeply disrupted and divided public opinion beyond the borders of their respective countries. It should be noted that these situations are very different and not comparable, for clinical and existential reasons. But they have some things in common. On the one hand, the fact that decisions about life and death are at stake, which makes the definition of who has the right to make such choices conflictual: the sick person, family members, doctors, judges. On the other hand, the increasingly powerful means available to medicine increasingly raise the question of limiting treatments.

These events therefore require us to clarify and deepen the role and meaning of medical care and the criteria that govern its use. Pope Francis also reminded us that it is necessary to avoid a blind extension of biological functions, losing sight of the integral good of the person (Address to the World Medical Association Convention on Assisted Suicide, 16 November 2017). 

In the face of these dramatic divisions, it is first of all a question of assuming an attitude of contemplation and prayer of proximity, so that we can find means of communication that promote reconciliation rather than controversy, at family and social levels. We must also avoid entrusting the solution only to a technical or legal action in order to seek together the broadest possible agreement. It is a journey that requires a commitment, not only personal but also collective, to develop that sense of life that suffering challenges and to confront the radical limit of death. It is a question of awakening the forces that culture has always mobilized in the history of humanity, in all its symbolic expressions, from artistic to religious, offering reasons to live. Only a broader and deeper formation of consciousness can prepare us for such dramatic and complex decisions. Knowing that no one should ever be abandoned. That love must always accompany him. A love that also overcomes death.

These remarks by Archbishop Paglia clearly suggest that “biological life” sometimes can be “blindly” prolonged, and therefore should cease. They also directly accuse those who went to the courts in the Vincent Lambert case. His parents, in fact, were trying to save their son’s life in the face of medical decisions made by doctors who, in contrast with the declarations of Mgr de Moulins-Beaufort and his interreligious friends, did not have their trust at all.

Far from recalling the Church’s clear teaching on the fact that ordinary care is always due to the ill, the handicapped, and the dying as well as to any human being – including water and food insofar as they fulfill their function of sustaining life – Paglia’s declaration perpetuates the confusion between medical treatment and administration of food and fluids.

On the other hand, several hundred people, young and old, joined a vigil for Vincent on Wednesday evening in front of the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice, where lawyers Jérôme Triomphe and Jean Paillot and several specialized doctors spoke in turn about their fight for Vincent’s life and where public prayers were held for the dying man.

At the end of this tragic day for France, which makes clear that French end-of-life laws are tailored to allow and promote slow euthanasia by dehydration, the question now is how Vincent will be buried. That decision is in the hands of his wife Rachel.

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