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Despite Kidnapping Threat, Comatose French Man Will Stay On Life Support

Doctors in France have made an unexpected u-turn on plans to end a man’s life support and have handed the case back to the courts.

by Pierre Longeray
Jul 23 2015, 6:50pm

Photo via PHOTOPQR/L'UNION DE REIMS

Doctors in the northern French town of Reims made a surprise U-turn Thursday when they decided to keep a patient in a vegetative state on life support, amid rumors of a plot to kidnap the patient and members of his medical team.

According to reports, doctors at the Reims University Hospital asked the local public prosecutor to step in and order protection for Vincent Lambert and themselves, after threats and an alleged plot to kidnap the patient's doctors surfaced online. Rumors have also surfaced of a plan to abduct the patient himself.

The doctors' decision came as a surprise to many, particularly after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in June that doctors could take 39-year-old Lambert off life support.

Lambert, a former psychiatric nurse, has been in a coma for seven years following a traffic accident in 2008. The debate over whether or not to keep Lambert alive has been raging for two years, in a case that has become emblematic of the polarizing right-to-die debate in France.

According to the French daily Libération, pro-life militants have been circulating a list of suggested ways to save Lambert, including blocking other patients' access to food and water in protest, and kidnapping Lambert's doctors and holding them "in a secret location, without food or water."

In a statement released Thursday, the Reims University Hospital, where Lambert is currently being treated, explained that the conditions of "calm and security" necessary to make a decision on Lambert's case were not in place, and that doctors had decided to suspend the "collegiate procedure" they had been conducting to decide whether or not to end intravenous feeding.

According to Vincent's mother, Vivianne, doctors are also trying to establish legal representation for the patient.

An emotional crowd had gathered outside the hospital to hear the doctors' decision, including about 50 pro-life militants, who had showed up to support Lambert's parents, who have been fighting to prolong their son's treatment.

Around fifty people are here to support the parents of Vincent Lambert.

The doctors' decision marks the latest turn in an emotional legal battle that has seen Lambert's parents and several of his siblings pitted against his wife and other relatives who want doctors to end his life support.

Marie Lambert, the patient's sister, described the pro-life militants as "Catholic terrorists," who would "do anything" to further their cause.

Marie Lambert, speaking about pro-life militants: "They're setting up a form of catholic terrorism, they will do anything."

Legal marathon
Lambert's doctors had been convening since July 15 to decide whether or not to prolong his life support, and both relative camps had met at the hospital for a family council. Following the meeting, Lambert's parents and two of his siblings filed a complaint against the doctors and the hospital for "attempted murder and abuse." According to the parents' attorney, the complaint was filed after the hospital denied his clients' request for their son to be transferred to another facility.

A month earlier, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) sided with France's highest court, ruling that doctors could take Lambert off life support. The Council of State had already ruled in favor of stopping intravenous feeding in 2014, after doctors said the patient had shown signs of resisting treatment.

At the time, Lambert's wife, Rachel, agreed to the procedure. When Lambert's parents found out about the decision 17 days later, they 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.

In January 2014, the university hospital in Reims announced once again its intention to stop Lambert's intravenous feeding and to reduce his hydration, following a collegiate procedure between doctors and experts. Once again, the administrative court stopped the doctors' plans.

The hospital and Lambert's wife appealed the court's decision before the Council of State, which ruled in June 2014 that ending Lambert's life support was legal according to the 2005 Leonetti law — a law that limits "therapeutic obstinacy," or life-prolonging treatments for terminally ill patients, in favor of palliative care, a medical approach that aims to relieve physical and psychological suffering.

Without actually endorsing active euthanasia, the law allows doctors to "limit or stop useless and disproportionate treatments, whose only purpose is to artificially prolong life." In its 2015 ruling, the ECHR agreed that pursuing treatment constituted unreasonable obstinacy.

But despite the doctors' decision, the legal marathon is unlikely to end there, and Lambert's parents have said they are determined to continue fighting in the courts.

Follow Pierre Longeray onTwitter : @PLongeray