French right-to-die case lands in top appeals court

Juliette MONTESSE
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Vincent Lambert's parents, who are devout Catholics, have gone to Europe's top court to maintain his nutrition

Vincent Lambert's parents, who are devout Catholics, have gone to Europe's top court to maintain his nutrition (AFP Photo/FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI)

Paris (AFP) - France's highest appeals court on Monday began examining whether the man at the centre of a wrenching right-to-die case should have been put back on life support after doctors halted treatment.

Vincent Lambert, 42, has been in a vegetative state since a 2008 traffic accident which left him a quadriplegic with severe brain damage that doctors believe to be irreversible.

The question of whether to continue keeping him alive artificially has divided his family and the nation.

His parents, who are devout Catholics, have fought a six-year legal battle to maintain treatment against the wishes of his wife and doctors.

On Monday, the Cour de Cassation began examining whether a Paris court was within its rights to order that Lambert's feeding tubes be reinserted last month, just hours after doctors had begun switching off life support.

The Cour de Cassation, which will issue its ruling on Friday, will not consider the arguments for or against keeping Lambert alive.

It will focus on whether the Paris court was competent to rule on the case, which has taken the warring Lambert family to the top tribunals in France and Europe.

Lambert's wife Rachel and doctors are hoping that Friday's decision will end the legal battle once and for all.

Rachel Lambert's lawyer on Monday urged the court to "definitively end the affair by allowing the decision of the medical profession to halt treatment to be implemented".

- Papal intervention -

The Paris court's decision had reversed an earlier ruling giving doctors at Reims University Hospital the green light to remove Lambert's feeding and water tubes.

The French government and the Reims hospital promptly appealed to the Cour de Cassation, paving the way for yet another cliffhanger ruling which could see Lambert taken off life support again.

The case has rekindled a charged debate over France's right-to-die laws, which allow so-called "passive" euthanasia for severely ill or injured patients with no chance of recovery.

President Emmanuel Macron had last month rejected calls by Lambert's parents and others to intervene to keep him alive, saying the decision to stop treatment "was taken after a constant dialogue between his doctors and his wife, who is his legal representative".

The European Court of Human Rights also rejected an appeal by Lambert's parents.

But the UN committee on disabled rights asked France to keep Lambert alive while it conducted its own investigation into his fate -- a request the French government rejected as non-binding.

Lambert's wife says her husband had previously told her he would not want to be kept artificially alive if in a vegetative state -- a position he never put in writing.

Six of Lambert's siblings and a nephew also believe the most humane course is to let him die.

But his mother Viviane has insisted he "just needs something to drink and eat, and love". She, his father Pierre and two of Lambert's other siblings are adamant that he is not at the end of his life.

The case has even drawn in Pope Francis, who tweeted last month that it was necessary to "always safeguard life, God's gift, from its beginning until its natural end".