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Trial Reopens Euthanasia Debate in France - 2003-01-30

A sensational trial now underway in France has reopened questions about legalizing euthanasia. At issue is whether a nurse, accused of ending the lives of seven critically ill people, is a serial killer - or, as she says, mercifully answered her patients' requests to die.

More than a week into her trial, Christine Malevre remains a mystery. Did the 33-year-old French nurse kill in cold blood at least half a dozen patients, between 1997 and 1998? Or is Ms. Malevre a brave and compassionate nurse who ended the misery of seriously ill and dying people?

Euthanasia is outlawed in France and the matter is now in the hands of a court in the Paris suburb of Versailles, which will deliver its judgment on Friday.

What is already clear, is that Ms. Malevre's trial has reopened deep divisions in France on whether euthanasia should be legalized. Edith Deyris is secretary general of the French Association for the Right to Die in Dignity, which supports legalizing euthanasia.

Mrs. Deyris says the Malevre trial exposes a common practice of clandestine euthanasia. According to her association, roughly 2,000 cases of euthanasia take place in France each year. But, she argues, the medical community has hushed them up.

Sociologist and pro-euthanasia activist Andre Monjardet also denounces what he calls the hypocrisy of the French medical community.

In a recent interview with Radio France, Mr. Monjardet says that euthanasia is regularly, but anonymously, practiced in French hospitals. A survey done several years ago also found almost half of French medical practitioners under the age of 55 have either performed euthanasia or expect to do so at some point in their career.

Unlike assisted suicide, where patients are given drugs or other means to kill themselves, in euthanasia a person actively helps to end somebody else's life. Both assisted suicide and euthanasia are currently banned in France. For example, those accused of practicing euthanasia face up to 30 years in prison.

The Malevre trial is among several recent cases that have rekindled the debate on legalizing euthanasia. Earlier this month, another court handed only a two-year suspended prison sentence to a French police officer, accused of killing his wife. Elie Bendayan's wife was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and he said he committed an act of love by shooting her to death.

Two other highly publicized cases occurred last month. The mother of former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and a pro-euthanasia activist, committed suicide. Also in December, a 21-year-old man, who was blinded and paralyzed from a car accident, pleaded with President Jacques Chirac to be able to end his life legally.

A former health minister in France's last socialist government, Bernard Kouchner, who is also a licensed doctor, previously called for reopening the euthanasia debate. But the current health minister, Dr. Jean-Francois Mattei, describes euthanasia as a bad response to questions of suffering, solitude and abandonment.

Jean Langlois, president of France's National Council of Doctors, says his association is against euthanasia, so long as it remains illegal.

Dr. Langlois says doctors have been trained to treat and cure the sick - not to end their lives. He says doctors have an obligation to ease the suffering and moral anguish of those dying, a treatment known as palliative care. But a big difference exists, he says, between palliative care and euthanasia.

Doctors like Isabelle Triol, who work in French palliative care establishments, are generally adamantly against euthanasia.

Dr. Triol works at Maison Jeanne Garnier, a Catholic hospice in Paris. Dr. Triol, who is Protestant, said performing euthanasia amounts to denying life itself. Although a patient may be dying, she argues, he is still experiencing life with all its values. Even experts who support a debate on euthanasia in France, like Dr. Kouchner, generally agree there has not been enough emphasis on palliative care.

France's euthanasia debate is being played out across Europe. Belgium and the Netherlands have recently legalized euthanasia. Switzerland has legalized assisted suicide, and in Sweden the practice is not punishable.

But Britain, like France, bans both euthanasia and assisted suicide. Last April, a British woman, Diane Pretty, lost a highly publicized case before the European Court of Human Rights in which she had asked for her husband to be allowed to end her life. Mrs. Pretty, who suffered from a degenerative disease, died soon after. But another Briton recently traveled to Switzerland, so he could die by assisted suicide.

In France, a December survey found 88 percent of the French support legalizing euthanasia under certain conditions.

Dr. Langlois also suggests his association would not be against the practice, if it became legal. But Dr. Langlois said doctors should not be forced to perform euthanasia, if they are morally against it.

For her part, Mrs. Deyris, of the Right to Die association, believes support is growing in France, and elsewhere in Europe, for legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide.

This month, for example, Mrs. Deyris says a Council of Europe commission concluded that euthanasia and assisted suicide questions should come up for new debate among the member states. She described the decision as a very positive step for right-to-die campaigners.