France considers changing the law on assisted suicide

France is currently questioning itself over its stance on assisted suicide. The current law, introduced in 2005, allows patients to ask for very heavy medical treatment to be stopped, in certain cases. It highlights the need for palliative care for terminally ill patients, in order to preserve their dignity as much as possible. It was developed in order to avoid, as much as possible, Euthanasia being practiced. It does, nevertheless, allow patients to ask that in specific circumstances, heavy medical treatment to be stopped.

This law is currently being reviewed. François Hollande recently commissioned ‘une conférence de citoyens,’ (roughly translated, a citizen’s jury). This consists of twenty people, chosen from IFOP surveys, and supposedly representative of the diversity of French society. This was organized by the National Ethics Comity, and took place over a month. Each weekend, the members of the jury interviewed a selection of people, firstly chosen by the National Ethics Comity, and others chosen by them-selves.

Yesterday, they delivered their conclusion. They had decided, together, that they were in favour of assisted suicide being legalized, saying that it would be impossible to enforce an universal end to life, because there are many ways for lives to end. They did not pronounce themselves in favour of Euthanasia, saying that it was too complex an issue for them to recommend a stance on.

What becomes clear from reading the articles on the jury’s report is that they recommend a change from it being fundamentally the doctor who decides on the patient’s treatment – its strength and duration – to it being the decision of the patient. ‘La possibilité de se suicider par assistance médicale constitue un droit légitime du patient en fin de vie ou souffrant d’une pathologie irréversible.’ (Le Figaro, 16.12.13) (The right to commit suicide is a legitimate right for a patient nearing the end of their life, or suffering from a terminal illness.)

At the moment, one can still be brought to trial for assisted suicide, prosecuted for non assistance to a person in danger, but, in France, several testimonies published recently in newspapers have shown that this doesn’t necessarily stop people from helping others put an end to their life. Many of the testimonies have been anonymous, except notably that of Sandrine Rousseau, an MP for Europe Écologie Les Verts, who publicly denounced the ‘indigne’ death of her mother, who was suffering from cancer. Her mother took an overdose of pills, which took nine hours to take their effect. Nine hours of suffering, where finally an ambulance was called, and her mother died on the way to hospital. Rousseau makes the point strongly that her mother committed suicide because she had no confidence in the palliative care that was on offer, and feared a slow and painful decline.

The jury’s report correspondingly advised that a much bigger integration of palliative care was needed, as only 20% of those who were eligible to benefit from it were currently doing so. It also stated that there were heavy regional inequalities in terms of the quality of palliative care on offer. It said; ‘C’est le parent pauvre du système.’(It is the poor relation of the system.)(Libération 17.12.13) It suggested as a resolution to this problem that teaching the skills needed for palliative care be integrated at all levels of medical education.

France is therefore still some way off legalizing Euthanasia, but the jury’s response in favour of assisted suicide (after at least two doctors have agreed on it) may pave the way for a new bill making it a lawful process.

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