EUTHANASIA. Euthanasia is debated and discussions are relaunched at the top of the State. Prohibited in France, but authorized elsewhere, this medical act consists in voluntarily putting an end to the life of a patient at the latter’s request. Everything you need to know.

[Updated April 3, 2023 5:36 PM] Euthanasia is a red line in French law. If the term evokes a gentle death without agony, the act still amounts to causing the death of someone, with their consent. It is therefore impossible for the legislation to allow such a thing, yet a majority of French people seem ready to see the law evolve on the subject. On April 2, 2023, the citizens’ convention on the end of life spoke out in favor of legalizing euthanasia and/or assisted suicide in the context of “active assistance in dying”: 76% of the 184 members supported the idea. Two years earlier, an Ifop poll conducted in April 2021 indicated that 93% of those questioned were in favor of the use of euthanasia for patients with unbearable or incurable diseases. The same study added that 69% of French people wanted the Claeys-Leonetti law of 2016 which legislates the right to end of life to be modified “because it does not make it possible to solve many cases linked to people with incurable diseases”. These voices could finally be heard since on Monday April 3, 2023, after a meeting with the citizens’ convention, Emmanuel Macron announced that he wanted to propose a bill to better govern the right to end of life, including a possible recourse to euthanasia by the end of summer 2023.

Euthanasia, whether one is for or against, leaves no one indifferent. The medical profession is the first to be torn on the issue between caregivers inclined to see active aid in dying authorized and others, like the order of doctors, who are firmly opposed to the practice of euthanasia or assisted suicide. Both sides rely on the Hippocratic oath to defend their position between concern “to restore, preserve or promote health” and respect for “all persons, their autonomy and their will, without any discrimination according to their state or their convictions”.

It is therefore difficult to draw up a legal framework around euthanasia. Before the bill expected in 2023, previous measures were taken to regulate the end of life and euthanasia, in particular the Leonetti law of 2005 and the Claeys-Leonetti law of 2016. It is still this text that governs the practices that surround the end of life in France.

From the ancient Greek “eu” (good) and “thanatos” (death), euthanasia describes having a sweet death. Today, the term refers to the act of causing the death of an individual suffering from an incurable disease and in a state of psychological and/or physical suffering that is difficult to bear. This act is often performed by a doctor or a third party. A distinction is commonly made between active euthanasia (administration of a lethal substance to cause death) and passive euthanasia (termination of treatment and/or care that keeps a person alive).

French law condemns and prohibits euthanasia on its territory. In the same way, assisted suicide, a nuanced form of euthanasia, is also prohibited. In 2005, however, the Leonetti law established the idea of ​​a right to “let die”. It is a question of allowing doctors, gathered in a collegial way, and with the consent of the relatives, to set up a painkiller treatment “which can have the side effect of shortening [the] life”. We are talking about the possibility of limiting therapeutic relentlessness.

In 2016, the legislation on the right to end of life was modified by the Claeys-Leonetti law. New clarifications are made and the text introduces the refusal of unreasonable obstinacy which allows patients to request the cessation of all treatment in favor of deep and continuous sedation. The 2016 law also provides for the designation of a person of trust or the recognition of advance directives which must allow patients to make their wishes heard, whether it concerns the continuation or the cessation of care. Finally, the law establishes rights in terms of access to palliative care.

Belgium is one of the few European countries to authorize active euthanasia. On the other side of the Franco-Belgian border, “the act, practiced by a third party, which intentionally puts an end to the life of a person at the request of this one”, is framed by the law. Several conditions must be respected (awareness of the patient at the time of the request, medical situation of the patient described as “dead end”, etc.) so that the act carried out by a voluntary doctor is carried out in all legality.

Without explicitly authorizing euthanasia, Switzerland has for some years legislated on certain forms of assisted death. The country thus tolerates passive euthanasia and indirect active euthanasia (both are the subject of a precise definition) while continuing to condemn direct active euthanasia. In Switzerland, there are certain associations which offer aid or assistance to suicide within the framework of a “right to die with dignity”. Only the Dignitas association grants this right to foreigners coming to Switzerland. In 2011, assisted suicide provided by this association cost 10,500 Swiss francs, or 8,500 euros according to Franceinfo.

The Vincent Lambert affair is, in France and in Europe, an emblematic case of the debates around euthanasia:

The case of Vincent Lambert perfectly illustrates the fight between individuals who are for euthanasia and those who are against euthanasia. Each part displays its arguments.