PARIS – A quadriplegic French man in a vegetative state, whose case has split his family, and France, died Thursday, a week after doctors removed his feeding tubes. Vincent Lambert’s death came after years of court battles and underscores deeply divisive right-to-die questions in Europe.
Vincent Lambert had been kept alive artificially since a 2008 traffic crash left him severely brain damaged. The 42-year-old former nurse had not left written instructions about his end-of-life wishes, but his wife Rachel said he had earlier stated he would not want to be in a vegetative state.
Nephew Francois Lambert told reporters the death was a relief. His uncle would have not wanted to continue living in such a way.
In counterpoint, Pope Francis expressed grief over Lambert’s death, tweeting that every life is valuable.
Lambert’s devoutly Catholic parents had fought for years to keep Lambert alive, arguing that ending his life support amounted to murdering a disabled person. On Thursday, their lawyers called his death a state crime.
Members of Lambert’s family lined up on both sides of a debate that has riveted France and Europe.
While euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in France, French law allows terminally ill people to stop treatments that appear to be useless. The rest of Europe has a mix of legislation. Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, while assisted suicide is allowed in Switzerland.
Jacqueline Jencquel, senior member of the Paris-based Association for the Right to Die with Dignity, described Lambert’s final years as a nightmare — like being locked up alive in a coffin.
“This debate has to go on, because it’s so absurd,” she said. “If you see countries like the Benelux countries or Switzerland, where people have the right to have a gentle death, they can say goodbye to their family, friends. Death is a natural end of life. And in France and in many other countries, it’s still a totally taboo theme.”
Spokeswoman Carine Brochier of the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics, which opposes euthanasia, has a very different take.
“The case of Vincent Lambert has to make everybody think about what is the fragility of life,” she said. “We might all have an accident. And old people out there? Are we can take of the old people … or are we going to say an injection like euthanasia is cheaper than … a good health care system. That’s the question.”
The lengthy legal battle over Lambert’s fate ended up in Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Doctors earlier tried several times to remove life support, but were forced to reinstate it following court rulings in his parent’s favor. In a final bid to keep him alive, Lambert’s parents even wrote to a U.N.-affiliated body dealing with the rights of the disabled. But France’s highest appeals court ruled in favor of ending life support.