British, French courts juggle the legalities of euthanasia

A paralysed car crash victim and the widow of a man who had locked-in syndrome lost a legal bid in Britain’s highest court on Wednesday for the right to assisted suicide, while a French doctor was acquitted of poisoning charges after giving lethal injections to seven terminally ill patients straight after a human rights court ordered doctors to keep a comatose man alive despite his prior instructions to the contrary.

UK Supreme Court judges ruled seven to two against the appeal brought by Paul Lamb, who has only been able to move his right hand since his accident in 1990, and Jane Nicklinson, whose husband Tony was paralysed after a stroke.

Tony Nicklinson, who was conscious but unable to communicate verbally, refused food and medication after he lost an earlier legal bid to end his life with a doctor’s help in 2012 and died a week later.

The men’s legal battle has grabbed headlines in the UK and fuelled a debate over euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Lamb and Jane Nicklinson wanted a change to Britain’s 1961 Suicide Act, which makes helping others end their lives a crime. They said it was incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Both appeals argued that doctors should be allowed to help end the men’s lives, as their conditions meant they could not do so themselves.

Domestic question
Despite dismissing the appeal, the court ruled that the decision on assisted suicide was a domestic question for Britain, but disagreed on whether the courts or Parliament should be able to make it. 

Five judges said the court had the “constitutional authority” to overturn the ban, though only two would have done so. The other four ruled that Parliament was “better qualified to decide”. 

The judges did not go one step further and rule that a blanket ban on assisted suicide breaches the European Convention, but campaigners said the judges’ acknowledgment that they had the power to do so was a positive development.

Dignity in Dying, which supports assisted dying, said on its website that the ruling put “Parliament on notice that the Suicide Act is under pressure and may be declared incompatible with human rights law”.

Care Not Killing, a group that campaigns against euthanasia, welcomed the judges’ overall ruling.

“The law in England and Wales remains unchanged, with the court recognising that it exists to protect vulnerable, elderly and disabled people,” said spokesperson Andrew Fergusson.

Lamb said: “I am proud of myself for what I have done. I know it [the law] has to change.” 

“I am disappointed, but it is a very positive step,” said Nicklinson. “Parliament will have to discuss this.” Suicide itself is not a crime in Britain but anyone who helps another person kill themselves commits the offence of assisted suicide and can be jailed for up to 14 years. And a person who carries out euthanasia can be prosecuted for murder. 

Emotionally charged acquittal
Across the channel, a French doctor who ended the lives of seven terminally-ill patients was acquitted on Wednesday after a long, emotionally charged trial that has revived the highly divisive debate on euthanasia in the country.

A court in the southern city of Pau issued the verdict on Wednesday in the case of Nicolas Bonnemaison, who had faced up to life in prison.

The judge announced that Bonnemaison “was acquitted of all charges” against him, prompting thunderous applause in the courtroom as the emergency room doctor smiled, holding his lawyer’s hand.

Lawyer Benoit Ducos-Ader said the decision was “enormous” and expressed hope that it would weigh on the growing debate about legalising assisted dying in France.

Several relatives of the patients Bonnemaison helped die testified on his behalf and a petition signed by more than 66 000 people called for his acquittal.

The case had drawn nationwide attention and emotion amid mounting calls to legalise euthanasia, which is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. 

But Bonnemaison’s acquital comes as Europe’s top human rights court has ordered doctors to continue treatment for a man left comatose after a car accident six years ago, overruling a French panel in a highly unusual late-night decision.

Court order 
Vincent Lambert’s family members disagree on whether to keep him alive artificially, and the case has drawn nationwide attention at a time when the French president has said he wants it to be it easier for certain people with incurable illnesses to seek medical help to end their lives. 

France’s highest administrative court ruled on Tuesday that Lambert had made it clear he did not want to be kept in a vegetative state and said doctors could withhold further treatment.

Relatives of Lambert who want him kept alive appealed successfully to the European Court of Human Rights to intervene on Tuesday. The Strasbourg-based court confirmed on Wednesday that it had suspended the French decision and barred Lambert from being transferred while it decides the case on its merits, a process that could take months under the court’s usual schedule.

“He is not sick, he is not at the end of his life, he is not suffering,” Jean Paillot, a lawyer for Lambert’s parents, told BFM television on Wednesday. “From our perspective, there is no reason to stop feeding or hydrating him.”

In France, a 2005 law has allowed the doctors of terminally ill patients, under certain conditions, to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment.

The Lambert case holds echoes of the legal fight over Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped and entered what doctors refer to as a “persistent vegetative state” or prolonged coma. 

She died in 2005 after her husband won a protracted court case with Schiavo’s parents to have her feeding tube removed. – Reuters, Sapa-DPA, Sapa-AP and AFP

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