Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

Opinion

France’s Terri Schiavo lies dying while parents are powerless to save him

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

PARIS, May 3, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) - A young man is dying somewhere in France in circumstances similar to those in which Terri Schiavo was starved to death in the United States in 2005. His parents have been trying in vain to save the life of their son – we’ll call him Hervé – and their only hope now is that his end will be peaceful.

France is not supposed to have legal euthanasia, but starving a patient to death has been legal since 2005, when the Leonetti Law – named after the parliamentarian who introduced the legislation – provided discreet loopholes for “euthanasia by omission”.

Hervé had a car accident some years ago and was left in deep coma. Since then his situation has improved somewhat: from a state of ‘vegetative’ coma he has reached – his doctors say – a “minimally conscious coma”. This means he interacts with his environment, albeit irregularly: he responds in some measure to stimuli, follows visitors with his eyes and reacts to familiar voices.

The Leonetti Law 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.

Extraordinary care includes medical treatments that induce useless suffering or place undue pressure on the patient’s environment without hope of improvement. Ordinary care is always due: giving the patient shelter, food and fluids when possible is a human obligation. The only exception is the case when the administration of food would give more suffering that comfort, doing more harm than good.

In Hervé’s case, the objective of his doctors is quite clear: it is to put an end to his life. You could call it “slow euthanasia”.

This type of decision, according to the law, is made by the patient’s personal doctor in a “collegiate” manner with at least one other doctor who has not been involved in the case. They are supposed to take the patient’s own wishes into account in all cases – or what that wish would have been, should the patient be incapable of expressing it. And in that case, they must also “consult” the patient’s designated representative, if there is one, and his or her family and dear ones.

In the case of Hervé, his wife took part in the decision. But his parents were not even consulted. His mother heard indirectly from another doctor at the hospital where Hervé lies that her son was going to enter into a “process” and that she had to prepare herself to lose him.

She and her husband were not expecting to hear, just a few weeks later, at the end of April, that Hervé was already no longer receiving any food. As to fluids, he had been cut back from 3 litres per 24 hours to less than 100 millilitres over the same period. And his parents would have known nothing at all if one of Hervé’s brothers, visiting at the hospital, had not asked why he was not being drip-fed.

Hervé is slowly losing his strength. His father and mother are receiving no explanation from the medical staff. The fact that they were not even told of the decision to stop feeding their son, let alone asked about their wishes for him, does not appear to be of concern to the doctors involved, even though the law requires it. The father has been ill himself, and has not been able to visit his son to say farewell.

Now, when Hervé’s mother enters his hospital room, her son cries. He looks deeply unhappy. She has talked about this to the nurses, who brushed that away with an easy explanation: “conjunctivitis”. “But I know my son”, she told LifeSite. She knows he is suffering in more ways than one.

She also said that she knows that death is the natural outcome in her son’s case, and that it will come as a release from years of captivity. She has long prepared for it. But she is deeply angry because he will not be living his life to its proper end, because his life is being taken from him, because he is being killed under her very eyes.

Hervé’s mother has found no way to stop the process. Her daughter-in-law’s decision is final, she has been told. She asked LifeSite not to publish the name of her son, nor the place where he is being “treated” - she is afraid to be denied access.

She is doing her best for him to find solace in these last days.

Her feeling of powerlessness is even stronger because of the fact that when the Leonetti Law on patients’ rights at the end of life was adopted in 2005, all politicians and the mainstream press called it a well-balanced text that prudently kept short of legalizing euthanasia, while promoting palliative care.

So there is no media pressure, there are no lawyers prepared to fight these cases: public opinion is meekly swallowing the lie that withdrawing food and fluids from a comatose but otherwise healthy person, or from a person who is ill and suffering without his life being at risk, poses no ethical questions.

There have been exceptions. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and the Grand Rabbi of Paris, David Messas, in 2009, jointly signed a document saying that withholding food and fluids from a patient may only be decided for “grave reasons”, for instance when the organism cannot assimilate it or when its administration causes “disproportionate suffering”. “It should never become a means to shorten life”, they wrote.

One other case of withdrawal of food and fluids received widespread media attention in 2000. A young man who had unsuccessfully tried to hang himself was left paralyzed and in coma for several years. His parents asked for euthanasia: doctors decided to starve him to death and the process turned out to be extremely traumatic for all: the patient had numerous and spectacular spasms for days before dying. It appears to have been one of the first applications of the Leonetti Law.

The case has been used by the media as “proof” that France needs an active euthanasia law, deemed less “cruel” than this type of death.

François Hollande has promised during his presidential campaign to revise the “end of life” legislation and Leonetti himself is now touting “palliative sedation”: a variation on the theme.



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