France to relax terminal illness law

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The Independent Online

The French government announced plans yesterday to change the law on the treatment of the terminally ill to give patients a legal right to "die with dignity".

The French government announced plans yesterday to change the law on the treatment of the terminally ill to give patients a legal right to "die with dignity".

The Health Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said there was no question of allowing active euthanasia, on the pattern of laws introduced in the Netherlands and Belgium. It would still remain a crime to "take steps to kill" a patient, however limited his or her expectations or quality of life.

However, the draft law would change the code of medical ethics in France - and the regulations in the public health code - to allow patients, families and doctors to switch off life-support machines when all hope of a cure was lost. Under the present law, such an act can be construed as murder in France.

The proposed change comes after an agonised debate following the death 18 months ago of a young man severely crippled by a road accident. Vincent Humbert, 22, who was left paralysed, dumb and almost blind, appealed to President Jacques Chirac in an open letter for the right to die.

His mother, at his request, later placed barbiturates in his drip feed, and a senior doctor at a hospital for the incurably ill switched off his life-support machines. Both mother and doctor have been placed under formal criminal investigation.

It remains unclear, until the text of the proposed new law is published, whether it would be permitted in future to end the life of people like M. Humbert, with their or their family's consent.

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