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Decisions in France, Belgium Mirror Sharp European Divide Over Euthanasia

  • Lisa Bryant

A day after Belgian lawmakers approved groundbreaking legislation on child euthanasia, France's highest court deferred a decision on ending the life of a 38-year-old quadriplegic. Two sharply different outcomes reflect a larger euthanasia debate that is dividing Europe.

France's highest Court of Cassation chose Friday to seek further medical advice before ruling on ending the life of Vincent Lambert. The 38-year-old quadriplegic has been in a vegetative state since a 2008 car crash. His case is not only dividing his family, but also the nation.

Dr. Eric Kariger, who heads palliative care at the hospital treating Lambert, saluted the court's decision. In a radio interview, he said further medical feedback might help Lambert's tortured family. He hopes it will favor ending the man's life.

Terminally ill patient, right to die

Lambert's doctors and some family members support passive euthanasia, by cutting off his intravenous food and water supplies, which is legal in France under strict conditions.

In a recent television interview, one of Lambert's sisters said it was less cruel to let him die than to let him linger in a vegetative state for years.

But Lambert's deeply Catholic parents are staunchly against euthanasia.

The Cassation court's non-decision stands in sharp contrast to neighboring Belgium, where lawmakers Thursday voted to legalize euthanasia for incurably ill children of any age -- but under strict conditions. Belgium already legalized euthanasia in 2002, shortly after the Netherlands, which was the world's first country to do so.

Across Europe, the picture is equally mixed. Luxembourg allows adult euthanasia. And medically assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland. But other states, like Poland, are strongly against euthanasia.

Passive euthanasia -- which means turning off life support, denying medications, food and water -- is legal in France. Active euthanasia -- which involves taking direct action to cause a terminally ill person's death, at that person's request -- is not.

Last month, French President Francois Hollande repeated promises to introduce new, end-of-life legislation. He said he will seek broad support for legislation that will allow adults with incurable diseases to ask for medical help to kill themselves if they face unsupportable physical and psychological suffering.

But Jean-Luc Romero, the head of ADMD, a pro-euthanasia group, argues the president isn't moving fast enough. He told French radio that passive euthanasia scares many French, because it suggests a slow death through no food or water. By contrast, polls show the majority of French support legalizing active euthanasia.

The Court of Cassation is to rule on Vincent Lambert's case in the next couple of months. But the larger euthanasia debate continues.