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Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 9 News List

'A living head glued to a dead body'

By Jon Henley  /  THE GRARDIAN , Paris

A month ago, Marie Humbert sat at her son Vincent's bedside in a clinic by the sea in northern France. It was three years to the day since the car crash in which he lost the use of his four limbs, his sight, speech and senses of smell and taste.

Vincent Humbert, 21, a former fireman, did not want to live.

"The life I am forced to lead is a shit life. It is not a life, it is not my life. I can lead it no longer; I will lead it no longer," he wrote in a book, I Ask For the Right to Die, that was published the day after his death.

To write it, he indicated what he wanted to say, letter by letter, by squeezing a journalist's palm with his right thumb -- the only part of his body he could move -- while the man repeatedly recited the alphabet. It has since sold 300,000 copies, and is at number two on the French non-fiction bestseller list.

That evening, mother and son put into action their plan C. Plan A, in which Vincent wrote to Jacques Chirac begging the president to allow him to die, had come to nothing, even after a tearful visit by his mother to the Elysee palace.

Plan B -- flying to a country where euthanasia had been legalized -- was impossible. So Marie Humbert, 48, injected a poison, apparently barbiturates, into the drip that fed her son. He fell into a deep coma. At 9pm a nurse realized something was wrong and rushed Vincent into intensive care. His mother was arrested and spent the night in the police station.

And in the final ethical twist to this tragedy, it was the head of the clinic's reanimation unit, Dr Frederic Chaussoy, who decided to switch off Vincent's artificial respirator two days later.

"It was my decision and my responsibility," Chaussoy said. "I ended his life. Let there be no doubt about that."

The countries' attitude

Britain:

In principle, active euthanasia and assisted suicide are counted as murder.

France:

Euthanasia -- active and passive -- is strictly outlawed. Active euthanasia is treated as assassination, passive as failing to help a person in danger. Prison terms of up to 10 years.

Germany:

Topic taboo since Nazi era. Active euthanasia is illegal, passive euthanasia is permissible under certain conditions -- doctors have defined criteria for "accompanying people at the end of their lives."

Netherlands:

First country in the world to have sanctioned euthanasia. Conditions under which doctors are allowed to help people die are strict: patients must be in a state of continuous, unbearable and incurable suffering. A second medical opinion is required, and the patient must be of sound mind. Finally, their request must be made voluntarily, independently and persistently. According to a survey in the Lancet in August, 44 percent of deaths in the Netherlands follow an "end-of-life decision" by doctors.

Belgium:

Adopted law last year partially authorizing euthanasia. Patients must make specific, voluntary and repeated requests, a second opinion must be obtained and a month must pass between a written request to die and the mercy killing. Some 38 percent of deaths stem from an "end-of-life decision."

Switzerland:

Euthanasia is outlawed but assisted suicide carried out "for non-egotistical motives" is expressly permitted. Some 51 percent of deaths stem from an "end-of-life decision."

source: The Guardian";


Euthanasia is, of course, illegal in France, as it is in almost all of Europe. If Marie Humbert and Chaussoy are pursued (a decision that a prudent public prosecutor has yet to take), she could be charged with poisoning and attempted assassination; he with anything from failure to assist a person in danger to premeditated murder. From Barcelona to Berlin, the crime would be the same.

The case has reignited the mercy-killing debate across Europe, in part because that was the Humberts' intention. He wrote a bestselling book about his suffering; she went on television to explain what she planned to do. Eighty-eight percent of the French, at least, now believe the laws must be changed.

The day of Vincent Humbert's funeral, the government appointed a parliamentary commission on the issue. Every political party agreed on the desirability, in due course, of changing the law. All acknowledged that there had to be a way for such painful dilemmas to be avoided.

But French politicians remain deeply divided over the advisability of legalizing -- or even decriminalizing -- one of the west's most sensitive taboos. And, despite the thoroughly unsatisfactory legal situation in most European countries, where euthanasia is generally treated as homicide, those same doubts are reflected across much of the rest of the continent.

The Council of Europe was forced to postpone a debate on harmonizing legislation last month when it proved almost impossible to arrive even at an agreed definition of the terms involved.

In Germany, for example, mercy killing is illegal, largely because the country is still haunted by the legacy of the Nazis. Under Hitler's euthanasia programme, more than 100,000 people, many of them mentally or physically handicapped, were killed during the Third Reich.

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