Henry Samuel —
Doctors in France will have the right to put terminally-ill patients into a deep sleep until they die, under plans unveiled on Friday that reignited a national debate on euthanasia.
Apart from Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide.
In France, a 2005 law permits “passive euthanasia”, where 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, as they allow 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 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 who suffer unbearable pain should be allowed to die.
President Francois Hollande pledged in his 2012 electoral campaign to look deeper 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 on Friday that a parliamentary debate on the issue would be held in January, and that a bill would be passed at an unspecified date after that.
Anti-euthanasia group Soulager Mais Pas Tuer (Relieve but Don’t Kill), criticised the proposals as “masked euthanasia”. Pro-euthanasia group ADMD (The Association for the Right to Die in Dignity), said they didn’t go far enough and would end up with terminally ill patients “dying of hunger or thirst”.
The new proposals came after a series of heart-wrenching stories in France struck a national nerve.
In November 2013, two couples in their 80s committed suicide in Paris, leaving notes. One did so in the luxury Le Lutetia hotel, first ordering room service then asphyxiating themselves by putting plastic bags on their heads. Staff found them lying hand-in-hand, with a typewritten note claiming “the right to die with dignity”.
In December last year, Sandrine Rousseau, spokeswoman for the green EELV party, published a letter on her blog describing how she and her father watched for nine hours as her mother died a slow, agonising death after taking pills.
“She did not commit suicide for fun, she did it because she knew that no one would cut short her suffering, at least not enough to die with dignity,” she wrote. “But her agony was long. Nine hours to endure suffering that was not medically supervised.”