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Vincent Lambert case: France gripped by 'right to die' case of tetraplegic former nurse and an attempt to 'kidnap him from his hospital bed'

Vincent Lambert's parents want him to live. His wife thinks he should be allowed to die. And now his doctors want a guardian appointed to protect his interests

John Lichfield
Monday 27 July 2015 18:52 BST
Vincent Lambert, a quadriplegic man on artificial life support in Reims (AFP)
Vincent Lambert, a quadriplegic man on artificial life support in Reims (AFP) (AFP)

Vincent Lambert is one of the most famous names and faces in France. But his doctors, his wife and six of his eight siblings say that the real Vincent Lambert died seven years ago in a road accident.

They insist that he is unaware of his fame and, strictly speaking, unaware of anything. He should be allowed to die in dignity. As life expectancy increases across Europe, millions are now considering their own “right to die”. Mr Lambert’s case has gripped and divided France, and not just on Left-Right lines.

His devoutly Catholic mother and father and an increasingly strident “Vincent must live” campaign on the French Catholic fundamentalist Right think otherwise. Vincent Lambert may have suffered grievous brain damage but he is alive, they say. He must remain so.

The anguishing tug of life and death over the 38-year-old tetraplegic former psychiatric nurse has already been through multiple legal judgements in France. Last month the European Court ruled that his feeding tubes could be removed without breaching his human rights.

A woman holds a placard reading "I am Vincent Lambert" (AFP)

The Lambert case has now entered disturbing and uncharted legal territory. His medical team were expected last week to act on the Strasbourg judgement and announce that they were disconnecting his feeding systems to allow him, in effect, to starve to death under medical supervision.

Instead, the team of doctors said they could not take a “calm” decision under a barrage of legal, verbal and physical threats from the “Vincent must live” campaign. A recent attempt had been made, they claimed, to kidnap Mr Lambert from his hospital bed in Reims, northern France.

Doctors asked the French judicial system to make Vincent a ward of court and appoint an official guardian to defend his interests. Mr Lambert’s wife Rachel, 34, who has fought to allow him to die, was distraught. “I don’t understand. I thought that some respect for Vincent would finally be shown,” she said.

Viviane Lambert (C), the mother of Vincent Lambert (AFP)

Vincent’s sister, Marie Lambert, complained that the doctors had submitted to what she called “Catholic terrorism”. “It is all because of these pressure groups who are terrorising the hospital,” she said.

Mr Lambert’s mother, Viviane, 69, was delighted. She emerged beaming from the hospital through a guard of honour of 50 pro-life campaigners. They wore T-shirts marked: “He is silent so they want to kill him. But we won’t be silent.”

Viviane Lambert, who is close to the Saint-Pie-X Catholic group disowned by the Vatican, claimed victory. She said the doctors’ decision “means that they recognise that (Vincent) is alive because they want to protect him”.

Mr Lambert’s parents and two of his eight siblings insist that, with better care, the young man might improve. They have published a list of six clinics which would be prepared to continue his treatment indefinitely. Since the Strasbourg ruling in June, the “Vincent must live” campaign has moved up several gears in aggressiveness and intensity.

Earlier this month Mr Lambert’s parents brought a legal action against his doctors and, also accused his wife, Rachel, of faking information. They reject her claim that he pleaded with her before his accident to ensure he would never be kept alive if he suffered irreversible brain damage.

Mr Lambert’s parents are said to have hired a private detective to follow Mrs Lambert and dig up information to discredit her. The detective “discovered” that she had moved with her seven-year-old daughter to Belgium to avoid harassment by pro-life supporters – something that she had already announced.

To the fury of Mr Lambert’s doctors, campaigners also posted a video online which seemed to show the young man listening to phone calls and responding to voices in his hospital room. His medical team and other experts said the video was profoundly misleading. Mr Lambert was in a “irreversible vegetative” state but some of his responses were still operating mechanically.

“If you had read out the telephone directory, he would have reacted in the same way,” said Dr Bernard Devalois, a French expert in end-of-life care.

The Vincent Lambert case has become a cause célèbre for both sides of the euthanasia debate in France – and beyond. The facts are far from clear cut.

Mr Lambert is not on life support machines. He can breathe normally but he cannot swallow food. He is kept alive by feeding tubes into his stomach. After trying to improve his condition for five years – with the support of all parts of his family – his doctors decided in 2013 that Mr Lambert had no prospect of recovery or quality of life and should be allowed to die.

They based their decision on a French “passive euthanasia” law passed in 2005 which says doctors should not keep alive patients in a vegetative state with “unreasonable obstinacy”. Mr Lambert’s wife was consulted about the decision and approved. His parents were not consulted and launched a series of legal actions to keep him alive.

The case now seems certain to return to the French courts. The six siblings who support Vincent’s “right to die” have accused President François Hollande of interfering to prevent a quick decision to bring their brother’s life to an end. The Elysée Palace and the French health service denied that any official pressure had been brought on the medical team in Rheims.

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