PARIS — France's top administrative court ruled on Tuesday that doctors should be allowed to take a tetraplegic man off life support after nearly six years in a coma, siding with his wife in a case that has revived a debate about euthanasia.
The Council of State ruled that doctors had the right to end the medical support that has kept Vincent Lambert, brain-damaged and in vegetative state, artificially alive since a motorbike accident on the way to work plunged him into a coma in September 2008.
The question of whether he should be kept alive artificially has split his family, and comes at a time of intense debate in France over euthanasia as the high-profile trial of a doctor accused of poisoning seven terminally ill patients takes place.
Doctors treating Lambert in the northeastern city of Reims, as well as his wife, Rachel, a nephew and six of his eight siblings want to cut off intravenous food and water supplies.
But his deeply religious Catholic parents, one brother and one sister oppose the decision and took the matter to court near Reims, which ruled against ending his life earlier this year.
Apart from places such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide - sometimes known as mercy killings.
But France, where President Francois Hollande promised prior to his 2012 election to introduce new right-to-die legislation, has left grey areas regarding more passive forms of euthanasia in a 2005 law on patient rights and care for the terminally ill.
The move to take him off life support would be allowed in France, where passive euthanasia -- the act of withholding or withdrawing treatment that is necessary to maintain life -- was legalized in 2005.
Lambert's parents said even before the Council of State's Tuesday ruling that they had asked the European Court of Human Rights to issue an emergency ruling on the case should the French judges go against their will to keep their son, now in his late 30s, as he is.
European court to weigh in
The European court has the power to implement urgent, temporary measures "where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm" and in this instance, could stop doctors from cutting life support pending a review of the case.
The international rights court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, said in a statement it would respond “as soon as possible.”
While Hollande has yet to deliver on his promise of legislation by the end of the year on the rights of the incurably ill, the legal battles over Lambert's fate and other cases has thrust the euthanasia debate firmly back onto the radar screen.
As many as 25,000 people die a year in France after removal of medical support, according to Remi Keller, a member of the Council of State.
In a separate case, a hospital doctor in southwest France is on trial on charges that he used lethal injections to hasten the deaths of seven old-aged people in 2010-2011.
His lawyers say they intend to turn that trial into a debate about the wider issue of the boundaries of euthanasia.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.