Euthanasia Debate Renewed; Mercy Killing of Frenchman Forces Society to Re-Examine Right to Die

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Euthanasia Debate Renewed; Mercy Killing of Frenchman Forces Society to Re-Examine Right to Die


Byline: Delphine Soulas, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The "mercy killing" of Vincent Humbert, 22, last month after his mother put an overdose of sedatives in his intravenous drip on the third anniversary of the car crash that had left him in a semivegetative state has reactivated the right-to-die debate in France, a recurring issue in many postmodern societies.

"Some people will certainly be sad to learn that I am not here anymore. But they are wrong, I am so happy to leave," young Mr. Humbert declared in a book published last month, titled in English "I Ask the Right to Die," which he dictated letter-by-letter by pressing his thumb against his mother's hand.

It reached French bookstores on Sept. 25, the day after his mother, Marie Humbert, administered the overdose through the intravenous drip that was keeping him alive. Mr. Humbert's father and two brothers also endorsed ending the life of the young man who was deaf, mute, paralyzed and nearly blind.

"Death is beautiful when it is wished for and comes after months of waiting," Mr. Humbert said in the book asserting his right to die.

The life of Vincent Humbert changed on Sept. 24, 2000, when the 19-year-old volunteer fireman ran off the road as he drove home. Since the crash, he had lived motionless in a bed at a medical center at Berck-sur-Mer, a fishing village in northern France.

His story first became public in November, when he wrote, also through the mediation of his mother, to President Jacques Chirac, pleading for an exception from France's ban on assisted suicide. Mr. Chirac and his wife then received Mrs. Humbert and contacted the young man by telephone at Christmas and his birthday.

Since his devastating accident, Mr. Humbert always had claimed a right to end his "non-life," as he called it. His mother promised to help him do it.

"I wanted this book as a testament ... because I will die. I will leave the day that only my mother and I know and have chosen," says the book published under his name.

On the third anniversary last month of his car accident, his mother put an overdose of sedatives into his intravenous line.

Only Mr. Humbert didn't die - he fell into a coma and became a "human vegetable" who might have remained technically alive for decades.

So on Sept. 26, Dr. Frederic Chaussoy - chief of the resuscitation unit at the hospital in Berck-sur-Mer - turned off the life-support machine on his own authority to "limit active therapeutics" on the patient, which made Mr. Humbert die.

After his death, one of the deceased's two brothers told LCI, a French TV station, "I am happy my brother is finally free. It's a huge relief."

Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are the only places in Europe where euthanasia and assisted suicide are allowed.

In the case of Mr. Humbert, a criminal investigation is under way, but French Justice Minister Dominique Perben already has told local authorities to consider this case with "the highest humanity."

The young man's death has reignited the debate in France about "mercy killing." Although the law considers euthanasia to be willful homicide or murder and assisted suicide to be "a failure of the duty to rescue" people in danger of death or grave harm, the French National Consultative Ethics Committee notes that "such cases are rarely brought to trial, and when they are and a verdict is pronounced, they are judged with great leniency."

According to a 2002 poll by the Institut Ifop, 88 percent of French people consider themselves in favor or tolerant of euthanasia.

However, politicians are far more divided on whether there is a need to adopt a law dealing with this issue.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, is said to oppose modifying the current law. He told Le Figaro newspaper that one "cannot govern or legislate for such specific situations.

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