Hero or villain? ‘Poison doctor’ trial reopens French debate on euthanasia

Dr Nicolas Bonnemaison is accused of poisoning seven patients who were hours from death in order to spare them intense suffering

paris

A trial has opened in France which will relaunch an anguished national debate on the difference between medical compassion and murder.

Dr Nicolas Bonnemaison, 53, is accused of poisoning seven patients who were hours from death in order to spare them intense suffering. Relatives of many of his alleged victims believe he should be regarded as a hero rather than a villain. The state prosecution service says the doctor knowingly crossed a “red line” between palliative care and homicide.

Defence lawyers hope the case will become a trial of the ambiguous French laws on euthanasia, which President François Hollande promised to clarify during his campaign two years ago. A string of doctors will give evidence that Dr Bonnemaison’s actions are a common, if unspoken, medical practice. They will include Dr Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Médécins sans  Frontières  and a former French Foreign Minister.

Benoît Duci-Ader, the doctor’s lawyer, said before the start of the trial in Pau, in south-west France: “Both defence and prosecution accept this should not be just a trial but a debate on an important social issue. Yes, it is the trial of Nicolas Bonnemaison. But it is also the trial of how we deal with the end of life.”

Dr Bonnemaison, who has already been struck off, has admitted giving seven patients lethal doses of the sedatives Hypnovel and Norcuron when they were in great pain and hours from death. He failed to record the prescriptions in case notes, attracting the attention of nursing staff who made a formal complaint.

Under pre-trial questioning by an investigating magistrate, Dr Bonnemaison admitted that he had failed to seek a “collegiate” decision by group of his fellow doctors at the Bayonne hospital, as recommended by the existing French law. He said the law, which dates from 2005, was unworkable. “It is only deep inside himself that a doctor can know whether such a decision is the right one,” he said. “It is between him and his conscience.”

In pre-trial arguments, the state prosecution service rejected this argument. “No one has a power of life or death over another person,” the prosecution said. If convicted of “poisoning vulnerable people”, Dr Bonnemaison could be jailed for life.

Under the existing law, a group of doctors is permitted to take a “passive” decision not to extend the life of a patient who is dying in great pain. During his election campaign in 2012, President Hollande said that he accepted that this law was too vague and promised to draft a new one.

A petition, signed by 60,000 people, has called for Dr Bonnemaison to be acquitted and for the law to be changed. Signatories include many relatives of the seven people whose lives the doctor cut short by a few hours. No relative has lodged a complaint. One of the sponsors of the petition is Patricia Dhooge, whose husband Fernand’s life was shortened by Dr Bonnemaison in 2011.

“I wasn’t going to say, ‘Kill my husband.’ But there was a mutual understanding,” she said. “I am sure that if there was any hope, Dr Bonnemaison would not have done it. He wanted to end my husband’s suffering. That’s all that I remember.”

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

    £35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

    Day In a Page

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada