Strasbourg, France, Jun 9, 2015 / 10:37 am
The European Court of Human Rights' recent decision to allow the removal of a comatose French man's intravenous feeding tube could have far-reaching consequences, one legal observer has said.
Gregor Puppinck, director of the European Centre for Law and Justice, warned that the court's decision "puts at risk the 'legal death' of tens of thousands of patients in Europe" who are in the same situation as Vincent Lambert, a 39-year-old who has been in a coma at a Reims hospital for seven years.
"The respect for their right to life is no longer guaranteed by the European Court of Human Rights," Puppinck said.
Lambert's case was taken to the European Court last year after France's high court ruled to end his life support. By a 12-5 vote, the European Court of Human Rights ruled June 5 that the choice to stop Lambert's intravenous feeding did not violate European rights laws.
Puppinck said the ruling means it is legal for states to "cause the death of a patient in a minimally conscious state." He objected that the ruling means "we can again legally induce the death of a disabled patient who did not ask to die."
Lambert sustained serious head injuries in a traffic accident in September 2008. The injuries left him "tetraplegic and in a state of complete dependency," according to the European Court.
His fate became the center of a legal controversy. Lambert's wife and physicians said that his intravenous feeding tube should be removed, while his parents and two of his siblings took the case to court to continue his nourishment. The parents were hopeful of signs of progress and wanted Lambert to receive better care.
"They are trying to make us say we don't want him to go, but it is not at all the case, we don't want him to be snuffed out," Lambert's mother Viviane said earlier this year, according to BBC News.
Puppinck said that the refusal to guarantee Lambert's right to life and his medical care means the court is "turning a page in the history of human rights in Europe."
He charged that the ruling revives practices like those which were condemned following the war crimes trials at Nuremberg after the Second World War. Some of those trials convicted doctors who practiced the euthanasia of disabled persons.
Puppinck said the ruling violates the founding motives of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. The convention protects the right to life except for a death penalty execution following a person's conviction of a crime.
The five European Court judges who voted in favor of continued care for Lambert stated that in their view, the court's decision has "forfeited" its title of "The Conscience of Europe."
A lower French court had previously ruled that Lambert should continue to receive food and hydration. In January 2014 a panel of nine judges in Chalons-en-Champagne said removing food and hydration is "a grave and clearly illegal attack on the fundamental right to life."
The panel added that Lambert is "neither sick nor at the end of his life."
Euthanasia is illegal in France. However, a 2005 law allows physicians to refrain from using "disproportionate" treatments "with no other effect than maintaining life artificially."
The bishops of France reiterated Catholic teaching against euthanasia in a January 2014 document, stating that God's commandment "Thou shall not kill" is "the foundation of all social life respectful of others, especially the most vulnerable."
The bishops pointed out the contradiction in seeking to prevent suicide in society while also allowing it in some cases.
While Catholic ethics do not require extraordinary means to preserve life, they recognize the provision of food and hydration as an ordinary standard of care.