News Analysis

Is France about to follow Belgium on euthanasia?

It’s escaped most of the world’s attention, but France has been fixated in recent months on the case of Vincent Lambert a 42-year-old brain-damaged man who died on July 11 as a result of being starved and dehydrated to death. L’affaire Vincent Lambert has been marked by public protests against the successful effort to deny him food and water. It’s also rekindled the euthanasia discussion in France.

Euthanasia remains illegal in France. In the final stages of François Hollande’s presidency, however, a law was introduced allowing patients deemed terminally ill the right to be put into deep sedation. This involves administering strong sedatives to ease suffering until the patient expires. It is also possible for a medical determination to be made to withdraw life support.

In 2008, Lambert was involved in a road accident that left him in a quadriplegic state and with minimal consciousness. He had left no instructions about end-of-life care. Since 2013, Lambert’s parents, who are practising Catholics, and two of his siblings had engaged in legal battles in the French courts and the European Court of Human Rights against Lambert’s wife, some of his other siblings, and his doctors at Reims Palliative Care hospital who wanted to stop IV liquids and disconnect Lambert’s feeding tubes.

Leading French Catholics such as Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims and Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris argued politely but strenuously against the withdrawal of food and water. But the opposition wasn’t only from Catholics. Just as the massive grassroots resistance in France to legalising same-sex marriage drew support from surprising sources, so too did criticism of the courts’ handling of the Lambert case defy France’s traditional fractures.

Writing in the centre-left Le Monde, the novelist Michel Houellebecq excoriated the decision to withdraw food and water from Lambert. Human dignity, he argued, is not diminished by “a deterioration, as catastrophic as it may be, in one’s state of health”.

Houellebecq claims that members of the French government regarded the Lambert case as an opportunity to change attitudes in France about how the severely disabled are treated.

Previously, Houellebecq wrote, he had taken President Emmanuel Macron at his word when Macron said the state would stay out of the affair. But Houellebecq claims that before a hearing could get underway at the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, government ministers effectively forced France’s highest appeals court to make a ruling.

Such an action, Houellebecq said, contradicted Macron’s previous assurances. In Houellebecq’s view, government officials saw a chance to establish a precedent.

This may be one reason why Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort and the leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Protestant communities in Reims issued a statement soon after Lambert’s death in which they insisted that “Mr Lambert’s situation was unique. The decisions taken on it cannot therefore be transposed as such to apparently similar cases.”

The concern, shared by many French believers and non-believers alike, is that some government ministers want to legalise euthanasia. They also worry that Macron himself is inclined to move in that direction.

Macron has been cagey in his public statements about these questions. During his April 2018 address to France’s Catholic bishops, Macron acknowledged the strength of Catholic views on changes to bioethical laws. Nonetheless, he carefully refrained from expressing his own opinions.

Macron surely knows that legalising euthanasia is likely to provoke strong opposition from religious leaders, a majority of the medical profession, and important figures on the political left and right – including figures in his own government.

The fact that Archbishop Aupetit of Paris is a medical doctor and a distinguished bioethicist in his own right adds, I suspect, to Macron’s wariness about taking too direct a stance on these questions. A public fight with the Church, leading Jewish and Muslim religious voices, prominent intellectuals like Houellebecq and many politicians is the last thing that a politically weakened president needs right now.

Yet the discussion goes beyond the ethics of end-of-life decisions. With more people living longer and France’s birth rate already falling below replacement level (and predicted to decrease still further), the economic pressures on France’s state-dominated health and welfare systems are growing, with some arguing that more state funds should be spent on subsidised daycare and direct-cash payments to families (even though these policies don’t seem to have increased the willingness of the French to have more children).

Open utilitarianism isn’t common in France. That’s partly because it’s often seen as an “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon. But one wonders how long it will be before proposals in favour of Belgian-like euthanasia policies – on the grounds of reducing healthcare costs – begin making their way into the centre of the French debate.

If that happens, I predict a bataille royale which goes to the heart of France itself.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author of Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization