In a last-minute intervention, a French appeals court ruled that 42-year old Vincent Lambert’s doctors must resume giving him food and water, to the dismay of Lambert’s wife but to the relief of his devout Catholic parents and pro-life advocates.
In 2008, Lambert, a French psychiatric nurse, was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him mentally impaired and unable to move or eat. He has received his food and fluids by feeding tube at Reims University Hospital. His wife, Rachel, applied in 2015 to have his feeding tube removed, saying she wants to see him die and be a “free man.”
Euthanasia is illegal in France, but the law allows “passive euthanasia,” or removing the supply of food and fluids from the terminally ill or injured. But Lambert isn’t dying, and the act would constitute euthanasia, according to pro-life advocates, a group of French doctors, and the legal group representing Lambert’s parents.
“To withhold these basic necessities of life from Victor Lambert would be nothing less than euthanizing him, which masquerades under the guise of so-called ‘mercy killing,’” Deborah Piroch, a spokeswoman for Human Life International, told me. “These are not considered ‘extraordinary means’ of survival by the Catholic Church—even a baby is given food and water. Would one kill the baby because he cannot eat or drink without aid? Of course not.”
On Monday, Lambert’s doctor, Vincent Sanchez, sedated Lambert and removed his feeding tube after the European court of Human Rights refused to take the case. The court had previously ruled in 2015 that the feeding tube could be removed. But hours after Sanchez stopped providing food and fluids, the French Court of Appeal gave a surprise ruling to restore the feeding tube.
Lambert’s lawyer, Jean Paillot from the European Center for Law and Justice, called the ruling an “extraordinary victory.” The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) said it was a victory for “disabled persons, life, and international law.”
The French Society for Palliative Care said removing his feeding tube would be justified, since it simply stopped “a situation of artificial prolongation of life, as a result of medical action.”
But Alex Schadenberg, director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told me that administering food and water—even through a feeding tube—is basic care rather than medical intervention. Only in recent years, he said, has the medical establishment redefined food and water as medical treatment.
Allowing people to die by dehydration, he said, “goes on every single day, everywhere, all the time,” adding, “In the case of Vincent Lambert, his mother is fighting against it. He would have been dead a long time ago if his parents weren’t fighting against it.”
Many have likened Lambert’s case to that of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who died on March 31, 2005. Her husband won a lengthy court battle to have doctors remove her feeding tube, and Schiavo died 13 days later. Her lawyer told WORLD founder Joel Belz that before she died, Schiavo could laugh, cry, and she even “fussed” at nursing staff. Similarly, the ACLJ wrote that Lambert can turn his head to look at family members, swallow, and breathe on his own.
Schadenberg said that after Schiavo’s death, food and water was redefined as medical treatment: “When that Terri Schiavo case went through and was completed, it created an idea that this was OK, we can do this. So long as we have consent, we can do this.”
Despite the ruling on Monday, the battle for Vincent Lambert’s life isn’t over. One ray of hope for pro-life advocates has been the work of the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The committee has repeatedly asked the French government to follow the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which France has ratified. The convention protects people like Lambert, whom the committee says is disabled, rather than in a vegetative state.
Whether the French government ultimately will comply with the convention and protect Lambert remains to be seen.
Schadenberg said that the precedent set by the case has broad ramifications: “This doesn’t affect just this man, as important as this man is as an individual. It affects all people with disabilities who require food and fluids delivered to them by tube. It affects all of them.”