The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that French doctors can stop treating a 39-year-old tetraplegic man who has been in a coma for seven years following a traffic accident in 2008.
The decision is the latest in an emotional legal battle that has seen Vincent Lambert's wife and several of his siblings pitted against his parents and other siblings, in a case that has become emblematic of the polarizing right-to-die debate in France.
France's highest court, the Council of State, had already ruled in favor of taking Lambert off life support last year, after doctors said the patient had shown signs of resisting treatment. But then some of Lambert's relatives had taken the case to the ECHR, the judicial body of the Council of Europe, and in June 2014 the court had temporarily suspended France's verdict pending a full review of the case.
Lambert has been confined to a hospital bed since September 2008, when a traffic accident on the way to work robbed him of his mobility and left him with serious head injuries. Lambert, who worked as a psychiatric nurse before the accident, is unable to communicate and exists in what doctors describe as a "minimally conscious state PLUS." According to medical experts appointed by the State Council, Lambert is locked in an irreversible vegetative state.
In 2013, Lambert's doctor Eric Kariger, at the Reims University Hospital, said his patient appeared to be resisting treatment and was showing signs of "refusing life." Kariger enlisted the opinion of other medical experts, and the team recommended putting an end to artificial feeding and reducing hydration of the patient. Lambert's wife, Rachel, agreed to the procedure.
Lambert's parents found out about the decision 17 days later, and took the matter to the administrative tribunal of Châlons-en-Champagne, which ordered the recovery of treatment on grounds that the patient's relatives had not been informed.
"Support committee for the parents of Vincent Lambert."
On Wednesday the ECHR upheld the Council of State's ruling, arguing that the court's decision to put an end to the intravenous feeding and hydration keeping Lambert alive did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
In a statement released with the ruling, the court said that the majority of judges deemed France's end-of-life legislation to be in compliance with Europe's human rights laws, and that the "decision-making process" that had led to the recommendation to stop feeding Lambert had been "meticulously undertaken."
According to a French parliamentary report, some 1,500 people in France are currently in a "minimally conscious state PLUS," like Lambert.
The ECHR's landmark ruling has set a precedent that could influence future end-of-life legislation in each one of the EU's 47 member-states. "If and when a state wants to change its legislation on the subject, it will need to refer to the principles solemnly laid out in this ruling," lawyer Nicolas Hervieu told French daily Le Monde.
"Disappointed by the decision, his mother announces she will continue the fight."
But despite Europe's green light, it is unlikely that Lambert will be taken off life support any time soon, as other members of his family — including his parents — are expected to take the matter back to French courts.
Lambert's medical team will convene once more to decide whether or not it wants to end intravenous feeding. Lambert's mother has vowed to continue the fight to keep her son alive.
And Lambert's wife, speaking with journalists following the ruling, said, "There's no relief, no joy to express. We'd just like his will to be done."
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter : @Matthieu Jublin