Three European courts grapple with end-of-life dilemmas

June 25, 2014
(Marie-Genevieve Lambert (L), the half sister, and Francois Lambert (R), the nephew of Vincent Lambert, who is tetraplegic and currently on artificial life support, leaves the court after the verdict in a judicial case at the Council of State (Conseil d'Etat) in Paris, June 24, 2014. France's top administrative court ruled on Tuesday that doctors should be allowed to take a tetraplegic man off life support after nearly six years in a coma, siding with his wife in a case that has revived a debate about euthanasia. The Council of State ruled that doctors had the right to end the medical support that has kept Vincent Lambert, brain-damaged and in vegetative state, artificially alive since a motorbike accident on the way to work plunged him into a coma in September 2008. The verdict follows a heart-rending battle between Lambert's wife Rachel, seeking to let the former psychiatric nurse die, and his parents, who took legal action last year to halt plans by his doctors to do that. REUTERS/John Schults)

(Marie-Genevieve Lambert (L), the half sister, and Francois Lambert (R), the nephew of Vincent Lambert, who is tetraplegic and currently on artificial life support, leaves the court after the verdict in a judicial case at the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) in Paris, June 24, 2014. REUTERS/John Schults)

Three European courts stepped carefully around delicate end-of-life issues on Wednesday, with one rejecting assisted suicide, another delaying it and a third acquitting a doctor from charges he murdered dying patients.

The varied rulings by Britain’s Supreme Court, the European Court of Human Rights and a regional French court reflected the difficulty of drawing a clear legal line between aiding terminal patients to die in peace and committing murder.

In Europe, Belgium, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland allow assisted suicide, and opinion polls show broad support in several other countries.

But opposition – especially from religious groups – is strong and countries such as France considering legalization often find the issue to be a political minefield.

Britain’s Supreme Court judges ruled seven-to-two against appeals to allow assisted suicide from a paralyzed car crash victim and the widow of a man who had locked-in syndrome.

The European Court of Human Rights, responding to a last-ditch appeal by the parents of a tetraplegic man in a coma, told France not to end his life support despite a ruling allowing that by the country’s highest administrative court on Tuesday.

Also in France, a court in the southwestern city of Pau acquitted a doctor of charges of murdering seven dying patients by lethal injection. He said he did it to end their suffering and some victims’ relatives testified in court in his favor.

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