by Charlotte Lee

Ongoing policy debate in France reconsiders the illegality of euthanasia in Europe. Presently, only four European countries have legalized human euthanasia or assisted suicide: Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. In Sweden and Germany, the law permits euthanasia under certain conditions.

Euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2001; in 2016 alone, there were 6,000 documented cases. Belgium followed with legalization in 2002 and recorded 2,000 cases in 2016. While Luxembourg legalized in 2009, the law limits human euthanasia to patients who are deemed lost causes and does not extend to minors.

Nuances of the issue complicate the discussion: while active euthanasia means that someone uses a lethal drug on a patient, passive euthanasia entails ceasing necessary medical treatment. Assisted suicide, on the other hand, is only the act of providing a patient a lethal drug.

Although human euthanasia is currently illegal in France, a law was passed in 2016 that allowed terminally ill patients to undergo “deep, continuous, sedation” until the end the end of life. However, the discussion in France could bring the possibility of law reform.

La Croix, a French newspaper, released survey results that reflected an overwhelming 90 percent majority support for the legalization of euthanasia or assisted suicide. Despite the poll results, France still proceeds with its legislative process cautiously.

Pierre-Antoine Gailly, a reporter of the French Economic Social and Environmental Committee (CESE) contends that in the past two decades, public opinion has leaned towards favoring the legalization of more forms of assisted death. Gailly also quoted the National Institute of Population Studies, citing data that shows that despite current French laws, 2,000-4,000 French deaths are attributed to euthanasia yearly.

More recent case studies in France have also stirred up further debate. For instance, 41-year-old Vincent Lambert, a victim of a traffic accident in 2008, has remained in a vegetative state in Reims Hospital for almost a decade, dependent on life support. His wife, Rachel, fought to allow Vincent the “right to die”, but was opposed by Vincent’s parents, who accused Rachel of faking information.

Case study of French author Anne Bert, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is yet another example that highlights the controversy surrounding euthanasia. Because symptoms of ALS include difficulty walking, breathing, and pain, effects of the incurable disease can be extremely distressing to patients. Anne Bert ultimately opted for euthanasia in Belgium in Oct. 2017, rather than wait for the French government to pass legislation. And this is not uncommon: more and more French citizens are crossing the border to seek help.  

The unwavering Catholic Church: Archbishop of Marseille and president of the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) Georges Pontier raises concerns on assisted reproduction and euthanasia in Paris. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Other parties such as the Catholic Church oppose the legalization of euthanasia, as it violates an unchanging commandment of Catholicism under God: “You shall not kill”.   

Nonetheless, France launched its General States of Bioethics (Etats generaux de la bioethique) earlier this year. The conference hopes of opening a platform to discuss the complexities of the intersection between ethics and medicine with French citizens before a draft law is submitted in the fall. Talks focused on issues organ donation, transplants, artificial reproduction, and euthanasia.