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Parliamentary Commission set up as Doctor claims responsibility for Vincent Humbert’s death

On 26th September Vincent Humbert died after his mother Marie Humbert injected a lethal dose of barbiturates into his intravenous drip. Four days later, his doctor claimed responsibility for his death. The publicity that has ensued from the case of Vincent Humbert has revitalised national debate on the subject of mercy-killing and prompted the French National Assembly to set up a Commission to investigate issues relating to the ‘end of life’.

Three years ago Vincent Humbert (then aged 18) had a road accident which left him tetraplegic, almost blind, and unable to communicate except by moving his right thumb. In 2002 he wrote a letter to France’s President, Jacques Chirac, asking him to waive existing law so that he could be helped to end his life. Jacques Chirac expressed sympathy for Vincent and met with his mother, Marie, but his request was refused. The French media took up Vincent’s case, generating waves of sympathy for him throughout the country.

Marie Humbert administered the lethal dose to her son on Wednesday 24th September. The previous day she had told Le Parisien that she and Vincent had set a date to end his life. Marie Humbert’s bid to end Vincent’s life was deliberately timed to coincide with the publication of his book “I Ask for the Right to Die”, which he had spelled out using his thumb. Marie Humbert – said to be suffering great distress – was placed in police custody on Wednesday evening, but was later released to see her son who had become comatose.

To the fury of Vincent’s father, doctors ignored his pleas to let Vincent die, and placed him on life support. However, two days later the medical team decided to cease the effort to keep Vincent alive which would, at best, restore him to the condition in which he had lived for three years. They withdrew his oxygen and intravenous drip and Vincent died.

Marie Humbert has since been admitted to a hospital, and is said to be on medication to control her anxiety. Domenique Perden, France’s Minister for Justice, has urged the authorities to exercise “great humanity in applying the law” to her actions. No decision has yet been made on whether Marie Humbert will be prosecuted or not, but as head of state, Jacques Chirac has the right to pardon her.

Heralding what may prove to be a shift to a more open stance on the issue in France, Dr Frederic Chaussoy, the head of the intensive care unit that made the decision to withdraw Vincent’s medical support, has publicly claimed responsibility for Vincent’s death. Dr Chaussoy has been quoted as saying: “If the question is put: “Who gave death to Vincent Humbert?”, I answer: “It is me, it is not Mrs. Humbert.”” Having been involved in Vincent’s case for three years, he said he had feared Vincent would be restored to the life he had sought to end. He continued: “One could have said that it was [the result of] a complication, a heart failure. One can lie very well, one does it regularly and one could have continued in this traditional hypocrisy. But it was to better speak the truth.” Vincent’s medical team issued a statement saying they had taken the decision to “limit active treatment” in view of Vincent’s condition and his repeated requests to be allowed to end his life.

Dr Chaussoy is currently being interviewed by police. No decision has yet been made on whether he will be charged or not. It is possible that Marie Humbert will not be prosecuted for helping Vincent to die but Vincent’s doctor will instead be prosecuted.

Vincent Humbert’s death has prompted the National Assembly to set up a Parliamentary Commission to investigate issues relating to the ‘end of life’ and formulate proposals for addressing these issues. The Commission’s remit is not yet clear. However, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is known to be strongly opposed to a change in the law and it is expected that the Commission will focus on the issue of ‘passive euthanasia’, and the circumstances in which doctors who practice passive euthanasia should be free from prosecution, rather than (voluntary) active euthanasia. Nonetheless, ADMD hope the investigation will result in some progress on the broader issue of assisted dying.

It is unlikely that a timetable for the Commission’s work and the names of deputies who will sit on the Commission will be announced before next week. It is expected that the deputies will be drawn from each of the political groups represented in the Assembly. The Commission will prepare a report for the Government, which the Prime Minister may (or may not) decide to use to write a new law.

In the National Assembly, both the governing center-right and opposition Socialists supported the move to create a Parliamentary Commission. Whilst Raffarin and his government have resisted calls for a change to the existing law, Vincent’s death has prompted several Members of Parliament, including Ministers, to call for the debate on assisted dying to be opened. Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon told Europe 1 Radio: “As a member of the government I can’t advocate breaking the law, but we have to open a debate to modify our laws to take account of situations like this.” Former health minister Bernard Kouchner said it was time France caught up with countries that have legalized assisted dying. The circumstances of Vincent’s death have also caused Chirac to modify his position and speak in favour of a debate on this issue.

Since the death of Vincent Humbert, several thousand people have become new members of ADMD. The Journal François and Radio Monte Carlo have also organised a petition, which ADMD will give to the Prime Minister shortly.