In the midst of an anguished national debate on the frontier between compassion and murder, 17 French judges face a life or death decision tomorrow.
The Conseil d’Etat, or council of state, must rule whether or not doctors should switch off the machines prolonging the life of a 39-year-old fireman, Vincent Lambert, who was left in a vegetative state by a motorcycle accident five years ago.
Mr Lambert’s case has divided his family and has become a cause célèbre for the radical Catholic right in France.
His doctors, his wife and most of his brothers and sisters believe that Mr Lambert has no proper life and no prospect of recovery. They believe that he should be allowed to die under the terms of a French law, passed in 2005, which allows “passive euthanasia”.
Meanwhile, Mr Lambert’s devout Catholic parents, one sister, the French government and a lower court believe that his life should be preserved. His mother and father have announced that, if the state watchdog rules against them, they will seek an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights to keep their son alive.
By an accident of the judicial timetable, the ruling falls in the midst of an extraordinary trial in the south of France in which a doctor is accused of poisoning seven patients who were close to an agonising death. Dr Nicolas Bonnemaison, 53, is accused of going beyond the terms of the 2005 “passive euthanasia” law by actively shortening the lives of terminally ill patients. He could face a prison sentence if found guilty.
During the first 10 days of the trial, several other doctors have given evidence that they have administered drugs to cut short the suffering of dying patients. Dr Denis Labayle said that doctors were often confronted with patients who were certain to die and faced hours of agony before the end.
“Then a feeling comes over you which transcends ideology,” he said. “It is a feeling of compassion for a body which is before you and is going to die.”
The two cases have forced the government to reopen the national debate on euthanasia. President Francois Hollande promised during his election campaign in 2012 to “clarify” the existing law. Mr Hollande had backed away from this promise but has now appointed a national commission to investigate the morality and legality of the “end of life”.
At a hearing last week Rélmi Keller, the advocate general of the Conseil d’Etat recommended that the Vincent Lambert should be allowed to die. He said that Mr Lambert was being “maintained artificially alive, walled into a night of solitude and unconsciousness”.