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'Mercy' Killing Prompts National Dialogue in France on Euthanasia - 2003-09-26


The apparent mercy killing of a seriously handicapped young French man Friday has relaunched the debate on in France on whether to legalize euthanazia. Twenty-two-year-old Vincent Humbert died two days after his mother tried to end his life. The government has proposed a national discussion on the topic.

Last November, Vincent Humbert sent a letter to President Jacques Chirac asking the French leader to allow a doctor to end his life, a procedure known as euthanasia. Mr. Humbert was paralyzed and blinded in a car accident. In his letter to Mr. Chirac - tapped out on a computer, with a single finger - Mr. Humbert said the French president was, "my last chance."

But euthanasia, along with all other forms of mercy killing, is illegal in France - although experts believe a number of doctors quietly help their sickest, and most hopeless patients die. And although President Chirac met with Mr. Humbert, he did not allow an exception to the ban.

So, last Wednesday, Mr. Humbert's mother allegedly injected barbiturates into a liquid drip that nourished the young man, and he died Friday.

Dr. Jean Cohen, a practicing gynecologist and obstetrician, is also the president of the French Association for the Right to Die in Dignity. Mr. Cohen has met Mr. Humbert and his family. He praises Mr. Humbert's mother for her actions.

"I have seen the boy. He was completely paralyzed. He was blind. He couldn't express himself. He was doing that only by moving a finger. It was a terrible situation. And the mother had a lot of courage doing that [killing]," he said.

Mr. Humbert's death is likely to rekindle the euthanasia debate, not only in France, but elsewhere in Europe as well. Neighboring Switzerland has legalized assisted suicide, a practice in which a doctor prescribes a lethal dose for a terminally ill patient. Spain, too, no longer penalizes the procedure. And in recent years, Belgium and the Netherlands have passed laws legalizing euthanasia - a practice in which the doctor actually delivers the deadly dose.

But in France, as in most European countries, both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal. Bernard d'Hartoy, vice president for Let them Live, a Paris association that opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide, explained why, saying "According to Mr. d'Hartoy, all life is sacred. This is not simply a religious position, he says. Nobody has the right to end a life."

Many French politicians agree, even though polls show the majority of French support euthanasia, under certain, narrowly defined circumstances. And Bernard Kouchner, France's former health minister and a doctor by training, admitted earlier to practicing mercy killings during wars in Lebanon and Vietnam.

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