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11.07.2019 Europe

Vincent Lambert dies after 11 years on controversial life support

By Mike Woods - RFI
AFP Photos/François Nascimbeni
JUL 11, 2019 EUROPE

Vincent Lambert has passed awayafter 11 years on life support since a car accident left him a quadriplegic with severe brain damage. Doctors' decision to turn off the machines triggered a long legal battle between Lambert's Catholic parents and his wife, who wanted to let him die humanely.

Lambert was born on 20 September 1976 to Pierre and Viviane Lambert, devout Catholics who each had children from previous marriages.

The family lived in different parts of France and he was sent to a Catholic boarding school near Carcassonne in the south of the country. But like many of his eight siblings and half-siblings, he took his distance from religion as he grew older.

After finishing high school, he became a nurse in the psychiatric ward of a hospital near Reims in northeastern France. There he met his wife, Rachel, who was training to become a nurse as well. They married in 2007 and had one daughter.

In September 2008, on his way to work, Lambert suffered a car accident that left him a quadriplegic with severe brain damage.

In hospital, he could breathe normally but had to be fed through a tube. In the first years, he sometimes appeared aware of his surroundings, but his condition deteriorated and doctors were never able to establish communication with him.

Lambert affair goes public
In 2013, doctors concluded no therapy could improve Lambert's condition and decided to remove life support, as per 2005 legislation on discontinuing life support for terminally ill patients.

The decision was made with the consent of Rachel Lambert, who said her husband had told her that he would never want to live “as a vegetable”. Her wish to see her husband die humanely had the backing of six of Lambert's siblings, a nephew and doctors.

But Lambert's parents, with the backing of two siblings, challenged the decision and obtained a ruling to reverse it in the first of no less than a dozen legal procedures aimed at keeping their son alive.

At the same time, news of Lambert's situation went public, initially spreading on websites and blogs affiliated with traditionalist Catholic groups and beliefs.

When the sentence to maintain life support was overturned, doctors refrained from withdrawing life support, citing anonymous threats to staff.

No written consent to die
The Lambert case brought out a grey area in French laws on the right to die.

Euthanasia is illegal in France, so no one has the right to end the life of a terminally ill patient. But there are laws on ending life support for terminally ill patients that critics say amount to “passive euthanasia”.

Since 2005, doctors have had the right to cease treatments that keep a patient alive artificially. And since 2016, they have had the right to apply continuous deep sedation (CDS), meaning patients receive strong doses of sedatives to ease suffering until they pass away.

In both cases, application requires the legal consent of the terminally ill patients, which was not possible to demand of Lambert, in his condition.

If his wife and others claimed he had told him he would not have wanted to live in such a way, he did not leave a will stating as much in writing.

The absence of legally binding consent kept the cases, as well as the emotional feud within the family and in the public sphere, going for many years after the first decision to remove life support in 2013.

Long legal battle
Over six years, Lambert's parents stated their case to multiple French courts as well as the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requested France to keep Lambert alive while it carried out an investigation of its own, but the French government rejected the request as non-binding.

The ECHR eventually ruled there was no violation to Lambert's right to life, and Macron said the decision did not rest with him.

After a series of legal procedures in recent months, France's top appeals court gave its final ruling in favour of ending life support on 28 June.

Doctors took Lambert off life support days later and applied CDS to minimise suffering until the patient passed away.

During that time, Lambert's parents likened the ruling to “madness” and the removal of life support to “murder”, but said they were “resigned” to the situation. Catholic groups and supporters of the parents held vigils outside the hospital, as well as at a church in Paris.