An "act of love" by a mother who tried to kill her son to release him from what he called a "living death", reignited France's anguished debate over euthanasia yesterday.
Marie Humbert, 48, was arrested but later released after placing barbiturates in the drip-feed of her son, who was catastrophically injured in a road accident three years ago.
Vincent Humbert, 22, who was left paralysed, blind and dumb by the accident, attracted national and international sympathy last year when he appealed unsuccessfully to President Jacques Chirac to be given a "right to die".
In a 200-page book published yesterday, written laboriously with the help of his mother, M. Humbert said it was "impossible to imagine" his "vie de merde" in a hospital near Calais. The fact that the book was published on the day after his mother's attempt on his life was criticised by the respected newspaper Le Monde as a "calculated media operation" by the publisher, Michel Lafon.
Mme Humbert had given strong hints in media interviews that she intended to bring her son's life to an end. She was, none the less, allowed to keep her usual lone vigil by his bedside on Wednesday night when she introduced barbiturates, purchased in Switzerland, into his hospital drip-feed.
A doctor spotted what had happened a few minutes later and took emergency action to keep M. Humbert alive. The young man was said to be in a deep coma yesterday.
Mme Humbert can expect to be treated with leniency. She was placed under arrest on Wednesday night but released yesterday afternoon to go to her son's bedside and then to receive medical treatment. The public prosecutor for the Calais area said legal action would be taken "in due course" but there was no urgency.
M. Humbert's older brother, Laurent, 28, said yesterday: "They had programmed it between them. We knew that she was going to do it but we didn't know when or how it would happen."
Laurent said he felt "immense sadness" that the medical staff at the hospital at Berck-sur-Mer near Calais had "fallen over themselves" to keep his brother alive.
President Chirac initially ignored Vincent Humbert's letter appealing for a right to end his life in November last year. But after press publicity, President Chirac invited Mme Humbert to the Elysée Palace and made several telephone calls to her injured son, who remained mentally fully alert. He said tha he could not make any exception to the French laws which forbid euthanasia or assisted suicide, and he urged M. Humbert to try to regain his "lust for life".
Mother and son wrote the book, I Ask For The Right To Die, letter by letter over the past year. Mme Humbert recited the alphabet and her son pressed the palm of her hand with his finger when she reached the letter that he wanted. He would confirm each word with a nod of the head.
Despite opinion polls showing that most people in France favour of a change in the law, euthanasia remains a morally fraught issue. Not only is it illegal to assist someone's death, it is illegal to switch off life-support machinery, something which is permitted in some circumstances in Britain.
France's largest pro-euthanasia pressure group, the Association for the Right to Die with Dignity, praised Mme Humbert's courage and her "incomparable act of love".