Doctors in France will have the right to put terminally ill patients into a deep sleep until they die, under new plans that have reignited a national debate on euthanasia.
Apart from Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Euthanasia is illegal in France, but a 2005 law permits “passive euthanasia”, in which a person causes death by withholding or withdrawing treatment that is necessary to maintain life.
The proposals by two MPs – one from the ruling Socialists, the other from the opposition UMP – go a step further, allowing doctors to couple passive euthanasia with “deep and continuous sedation” for terminally ill patients who are conscious and whose treatment is not working or for those who decide to stop taking medication.
Patients who are not able to make decisions could, in certain circumstances, also be placed into a deep, permanent sleep.
The debate on euthanasia regularly pits those who say the sanctity of life must be respected at all costs against people who believe terminally ill patients suffering unbearable pain should be allowed to die.
President Francois Hollande pledged in his 2012 electoral campaign to look into the divisive issue, after a string of moving, high-profile end-of-life stories.
Mr Hollande also wants the new French law to force doctors to follow end-of-life instructions written in advance, if patients are no longer able to express their will.
Mr Hollande said yesterday that a parliamentary debate on the issue would be held in January, and that a Bill would be passed after that. Praising the proposals, Mr Hollande said: “It will be a great step forward and will provide answers to many more situations than we can imagine today.”
The Catholic Church said it backed the new proposals, as they helped contribute to the “best accompaniment for our most vulnerable citizens” and “do not go as far as euthanasia or assisted suicide”.
Neither of these terms is mentioned in the proposed Bill, which describes the measures as “having the effect of shortening life”. Last year, two couples in their eighties committed suicide in Paris. One left a typewritten note claiming “the right to die with dignity”. This year, France has been gripped by a family row over whether to end the life of Vincent Lambert (38), who has been a quadriplegic with severe brain damage since a road accident in 2008.
The case has torn his family apart. Doctors, his wife, 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 move. In June, the European Court of Human Rights ordered France not to remove life support. A final decision from the court is due in January.