Man at center of French soul-searching on life support dies

Photo: AFP

A man who was in a vegetative state for 11 years yet at the center of a bitter dispute that divided his family and French courts, and provoked national soul-searching over how to deal with terminally ill patients, died on Thursday.

Vincent Lambert, 42, died in a hospital nine days after doctors stopped providing artificial feeding and hydration, ending years of legal flip-flopping over whether to keep him alive.

Stopping treatment came four days after France's highest court quashed a Paris court decision to resume feeding so the United Nations could examine the case.

His nephew, Francois Lambert, expressed relief, saying that "it's the rational that takes over."

"We've been ready for years," said the nephew who has emerged as a spokesman for the side of the family, including Lambert's wife, who felt that their loved one should be allowed to die. Lambert's parents, traditionalist Catholics, fought relentlessly to keep their son alive. They argued that Vincent was disabled and wanted him put in a facility that deals with disabilities.

A 2008 car crash left Lambert in a vegetative state that required artificial feeding to keep him alive. He died Thursday morning at a hospital in Reims, east of Paris, where he had been treated.

The case has drawn attention around Europe.

The Vatican quickly reacted, saying it "learned with sorrow of the death of Vincent Lambert."

A statement expressed "our closeness" to "all those who assisted him with love and devotion." Coming down on the side of those who tried to keep Lambert alive, the statement quoted Pope Francis speaking in the past about the case and saying that "we have the duty to always protect (life)" and "not cede to throwaway culture."

In May, two top Vatican officials, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, in charge of Catholic laity, and the Vatican's top bioethics official, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, issued a statement saying that providing food and water to the sick is an "inescapable duty" and "suspending such care represents a form of abandonment."

Doctors resumed and cut off feedings several times based on rulings in various courts, which examined the case at the behest of Lambert's parents.

Legal battles began in 2013. In the latest twist on June 28, France's highest court gave doctors permission to restart procedures introduced in May to stop feeding and hydrating Lambert. The Court of Cassation quashed a previous decision by a Paris court to resume life support after the parents appealed to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The high court ruled that the Paris court ordering life support to be resumed wasn't competent in the case.

Unbeknownst to him, the man lying in a hospital bed became central to the debate leading up to France's 2016 law on terminally ill patients. The law allows doctors to stop life-sustaining treatments, including artificial hydration and nutrition, and to keep the person sedated until death. It stops short, however, of legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide.

The European Court of Human Rights and the Council of State, France's top administrative body, had upheld the doctors' earlier decision to stop Lambert's life support, with the court finding the move didn't violate Lambert's rights.

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