Vincent Lambert, the brain-damaged French man who was in a state of impaired consciousness for 11 years while his family fought over his medical care, died on Thursday at 8.24am. After getting approval from a court, doctors stopped giving him food and water. It took him nine days to die.
Although his wife claimed that Lambert had said that he would not wish to live in such an impaired state, there were no written instructions with his end-of-life wishes.
French media have reported that his parents plan to sue his medical team. While euthanasia is illegal in France, doctors are allowed to put terminally ill patients into deep sedation until death. Lambert’s parents have argued that, while severely handicapped, their son was not “terminally ill”.
Like America’s Terri Schiavo case, this has provoked controversy around the world. Thousands upon thousands of people in “vegetative states” in nursing homes could be at risk of having their hydration and nutrition withdrawn if doctors and courts accept the reasoning behind the decision to allow Lambert to die.
Reactions to his death show that France is as divided as ever. “It is a real relief for us,” said François Lambert, Lambert’s nephew. “Vincent had been the victim of irrational medicine for years. It had to stop.”
Unsurprisingly, Pope Francis tweeted: “May God the Father welcome Vincent Lambert in His arms. Let us not build a civilization that discards persons those whose lives we no longer consider to be worthy of living: every life is valuable, always.”
Surprisingly, Michel Houellebecq, the controversial and internationally acclaimed nihilist novelist, agreed with the Pope. He was scathing in his criticism of how Lambert’s death had come about. In an op-ed in Le Monde, he attacked the French Minister for Health, Dr Agnès Buzyn, for using Lambert as a symbolic battering ram to open a breach in attitudes towards the severely disabled.
“I admit that when the Minister of ‘Solidarity and health’ (I love that word ‘solidarity’) had appealed in to the high court, I was stunned. I was sure that the government in this case would remain neutral. After all, [President] Emmanuel Macron had declared, not long before, that he did not wish to interfere; I thought, stupidly, that his ministers would be on the same line.
"Vincent Lambert was in no way prey to unbearable suffering, he was not suffering any pain at all (...) He was not even at the end of life. He lived in a particular mental state, the most honest of which would be to say that we know almost nothing …
"Dignity cannot be (altered) by a deterioration, as catastrophic as it may be, in one’s state of health. Or is it that there has been, indeed, a 'change in attitude'. I do not think there is any reason to rejoice, "
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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