In a closely-watched case with implications far beyond France, Europe’s top rights court has backed Friday an earlier French ruling to take a man in a vegetative state off life support, but the battle is not over.
Whether to take 38-year-old Vincent Lambert off life support has bitterly divided his family and France ever since 2008. That is when a car accident left him severely brain damaged and a quadriplegic. He has been in a vegetative state ever since, hospitalized in the Champagne region and dependent on intravenous food and water to stay alive.
Efforts to unplug that support moved a step closer on Friday, with the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In a 12 to 5 decision, the court’s judges upheld last year’s ruling by a French administrative court - that Lambert had been clear in his wishes against being kept in a vegetative state.
Euthanasia is illegal in France, but doctors can withdraw care under a passive euthanasia law, and the court found doing this for Lambert also did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lambert’s wife Rachel, who has been battling to take him off life support, said there was no joy in Friday’s decision, but that his will must be followed.
The court’s decision cannot be appealed, but Lambert’s case is not over. His parents are still fighting to keep him alive. They were the ones to take the case to Europe’s top rights court. Now their lawyer, Jerome Triomphe, calls the ruling “scandalous.”
"It goes against the very foundations and principles of the European court. I urge the French government to let Lambert be transferred to Strasbourg, where a doctor has offered to keep caring for him," said Triomphe.
But another doctor, Eric Kariger, told French radio the European court’s decision is a small step for Lambert and his wife — but a giant step for humanity. Kariger had previously treated Lambert and wanted to take him off life support.
Friday’s ruling may set a legal precedent for the European Court’s 47 members, which include Turkey, Russia and Ukraine. The region is deeply divided over right-to-life issues. Only a handful of European countries have legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide.