French president François Hollande announced Friday that a parliamentary debate on the right to "deep and continuous sedation" for terminally ill patients will be held in January 2015.
The announcement came after French legislators submitted a proposal to the president on Friday, endorsing the right to relieve end-of-life suffering for patients with life-threatening conditions.
The proposal, submitted by socialist parliamentarian Alain Claeys and conservative parliamentarian Jean Léonetti, would make the end-of-life wishes of patients legally binding for doctors.
Despite widespread support for euthanasia in France and several high-profile cases involving doctors and patients in recent years, the proposed bill has reignited a polarizing debate on the legalization of assisted suicide.
While active euthanasia is still illegal in France, a law passed in 2005 — the Leonetti law — 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.
During his 2012 presidential campaign, Hollande pledged to legalize euthanasia, and "to introduce the possibility of benefiting from medical assistance to end one's life with dignity."
A report commissioned just months after Hollande's election — the Sicard report — recommended that doctors be allowed to dispense painkillers to patients, even if such treatments accelerate a patient's death.
In June 2014, a French court acquitted Dr. Nicolas Bonnemaison after he helped seven elderly and terminally ill patients end their lives. Bonnemaison, who had administered lethal doses of sedatives to his patients, faced life in prison. His attorneys applauded the court's decision, and said they hoped the ruling would encourage the government to look into new end-of-life legislation.
Claeys, the co-sponsor of the recent proposal, told VICE News that he closely followed the recent debate on medically assisted suicide in the US. The practice is now legal in Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, and is currently under debate in New Jersey. For Claeys, the recent recommendations are about giving French patients new rights.
"Our fellow citizens have two demands: for their wishes to be heard, and for a peaceful end to their lives," Claeys said. "Our proposal addresses these two demands."
He added that the country has moved past the binary "let live or make die" debate.
"All we want is for patients who wish to die peacefully to have the ability to do so, through deep sedation that is administered at the same time that life-prolonging treatments are stopped," Claeys said.
Critics say the new proposal does not enhance the 2005 Leonetti law. Christopher Michel, secretary general of the Association for the Right to a Dignified Death, supports euthanasia but called the sedation aspect of the proposed law a "hypocritical illusion."
"Sedation already exists, and while it can sometimes be a solution, it is not always the solution," Michel told VICE News.
French Twitter users coined the hashtag #RightToDieWithDignity while debating the proposal. Opponents say that, instead of legalizing euthanasia, the new bill will just allow patients to starve to death by ending artificial nutrition and hydration.
Euthanisia is legal and strictly regulated in Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. In Belgium, euthanasia was also made legal for minors on February 13, 2014. Other countries — including Sweden, Norway, and Germany — authorize passive euthanasia, which means life-prolonging treatments can be interrupted for terminally ill patients. In the UK, Italy and Poland, euthanasia, whether active or passive, is illegal.
For Michel, the right over one's own body is a fundamental principle, both of human rights and of democracy. "Nobody is euthanized against their will," he said. "Religious groups should not impose their beliefs on others, particularly not in a secular state."
The VITA Alliance, a French organization that campaigns against euthanasia — and also against abortion and surrogacy — responded to a VICE News inquiry by sending a press release for their "Relieve Not Kill" campaign, which is endorsed by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a well-known quadriplegic French aristocrat. On December 10, the group organized an anti-euthanasia protest in Paris that drew a small crowd. The VITA Alliance describes the "deep and continued sedation until death," language in the proposal as "euthanasia in sheep's clothing."
In June 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) suspended a decision by France's highest court, the Council of State, which had ruled in favor of ending life support for Vincent Lambert, who had been in a coma since 2008. Lambert's doctors and his wife wanted to cut off the patient's intravenous food and water supply, a move that was opposed by the patient's family.
Follow Virgile dall'Armellina on Twitter: __@armellina
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