PARIS — One French court acquitted a doctor of poisoning seven terminally ill patients while another ordered physicians to suspend treatment for a comatose man. Another — Britain’s top court — said the country’s ban on aid in dying may be incompatible with human rights. The decisions of the past few days are fueling the arguments of Europeans who say the duty of doctors is to end the suffering of patients who are beyond treatment.
But emotions run high on euthanasia and aid in dying, as is shown by the case of the comatose Frenchman, Vincent Lambert. Hours after the French court sided with his wife in ordering an end to treatment, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg blocked the move at the request of his parents, in a rare late-night ruling.
The prosecution in France of Dr. Nicolas Bonnemaison also was relatively unusual. The physician never denied giving seven terminally ill patients lethal injections, and some of their families testified on his behalf.
Bonnemaison’s lawyer said he hoped Wednesday’s acquittal — and Tuesday’s ruling in the case of Lambert — would force the government to update the law quickly.
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“There are no heroes here, no martyrs,” said the lawyer, Benoît Ducos-Ader. “This man acted as a doctor. He always acknowledged that, shouted that, despite the blows he received.”
Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg for patients whose suffering is “unbearable.” France’s president has said he wants to make it easier for some terminally ill patients to request medical help to end their lives in the majority-Roman Catholic country.
Aid in dying is illegal in Britain, although rarely prosecuted. Wednesday’s ruling from the British Supreme Court was unexpectedly far-reaching. Although it dismissed the appeal from two severely disabled men who argued the law should be changed to allow doctors to legally kill them, a majority of judges suggested that Parliament change the law to be in line with human-rights guarantees.
“It’s the strongest thing they could do,” short of overturning the law, said Penney Lewis, a law professor at King’s College London.
One of the men who brought the case, Paul Lamb, was paralyzed in a car accident. The other, Tony Nicklinson, suffered from “locked-in syndrome” after a stroke. He died of pneumonia in 2012, but the case has been taken over by his widow.
A measure up for debate this summer in Britain’s House of Lords would ease the ability of patients to choose their manner of death.
In the case decided Wednesday, the patients had argued in favor of a device invented in Australia. Doctors would hook up a terminally ill patient to the device and the patients themselves would choose when and how to deliver a lethal drug.
Lewis, the law professor, said the British case and the acquittal of Bonnemaison followed a trend of broadening legal acceptance for euthanasia and aid in dying.
“I think public opinion has been there a lot longer than the legal opinion,” she said.
But the case of Lambert showed a continued ambivalence toward the issue. Lambert’s family is divided on whether to withhold food and hydration.
The French court Tuesday ruled doctors could do so under French law, saying he had made his wishes clear before his car accident six years ago.
That decision was overruled later by the European court, which ordered France to continue treatment until it can examine the case under a measure normally reserved for emergency extradition hearings. The court has jurisdiction across Europe and member countries are bound by its rulings.
“He is not sick, he is not at the end of his life, he is not suffering,” Jean Paillot, a lawyer for Lambert’s parents, told BFM television Wednesday. “From our perspective, there is no reason to stop feeding or hydrating him.”
The Lambert case has echoes of the legal fight over Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped. She died in 2005 after her husband won a protracted court case with Schiavo’s parents to have her feeding tube removed.