UN Committee prevents disabled man from being dehydrated to death in France
8th May 2019
Vincent Lambert sustained severe brain damage in a motorcycle accident in 2008, but is not dying.
A last minute repreive
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has intervened to halt moves to withdraw food and fluids from a disabled man in France.
"France's Terri Schiavo"
The case centres around Vincent Lambert, a 42 year old former psychiatric nurse, who was left cognitively disabled and in a minimally conscious state after a motorcycle accident injury in 2008.
In 2014, doctors at the hospital in Rheims, backed by Mr Lambert's wife Rachel, five of his siblings and his nephew Francois decided to stop his nutrition and hydration in line with France's passive euthanasia law. Removing his food and fluids would mean Mr Lambert dying of dehydration.
Parents fight to save his life
Pierre and Viviane Lambert, his parents, as well as two of his siblings, have spent the last six years fighting to prevent this. Since the legal battle first began, the French courts have largely backed the doctors, upholding a decision earlier this year to withdraw life support for Mr Lambert.
The French highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, recently ruled that Mr Lambert must in his own “interests” be deprived of food and fluids and placed under deep sedation until he dies. On April 30, the European Court of Human Rights rejected appeals on behalf of Vincent’s life as it had already done previously in 2015.
Last minute reprieve
However, the CRPD has now agreed to examine the case, and has asked France to suspend the decision to halt the intravenous food and water keeping Mr Lambert alive while it conducts its own investigation.
In response, France’s Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said while the UN’s request is not legally binding, it would abide by it.
“We are not legally bound by this committee, but of course we will take into account what the UN says and we will respond” she said on Sunday.
The underlying issues
Dr Anthony McCarthy of SPUC says that there are multiple very worrying issues in this case.
“Firstly, such conditions are notoriously difficult to diagnose, as a recent literature review has found,” he said.
“Secondly, if the aim in withdrawing food and fluids is to eliminate a life no longer considered worthy to continue, there is no moral difference between such 'passive' non-voluntary euthanasia and 'active' non-voluntary euthanasia by, for example, lethal injection.
“No-one is claiming that every conceivable means must be taken to sustain a patient's life,” he continued. “But nutrition and hydration delivered by tube, which is still sustaining the patient and is not unduly burdensome, is basic care, not extraordinary medical means. Where is the 'disproportionate' burden here, including for the patient, who is supposedly unconscious? Is the aim not rather simply to dehydrate to death someone whose life is not considered to have value?
“All of this is opposed to Hippocratic principles and to basic care of disabled and vulnerable people,” Dr McCarthy said. “It is shocking that the case has had to be taken to such levels. I hope that the UN Committee stands against this attack on the dignity of patients which undermines us all."