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French doctor acquitted in controversial euthanasia case

Flurry of court rulings on medical treatment of terminally ill or comatose patients renews European debate on euthanasia

A French doctor was acquitted Wednesday of criminal charges after administering lethal injections to terminally ill patients, in a case that has added urgency to the growing debate over euthanasia in Europe.

Nicolas Bonnemaison was put on trial for using injections to hasten the deaths of seven elderly patients in southwestern France during 2010 and 2011. While the removal of a patient's medical support is permitted in France, euthanasia itself is illegal.

The case has drawn international attention amid mounting calls in France to legalize the controversial practice. Several relatives of the deceased patients testified on Bonnemaison’s behalf, and his lawyers said they intended to turn the trial into a debate over the wider issue of the boundaries of euthanasia.

The doctor’s acquittal came the same day that Britain’s Supreme Court said a ban on assisted suicide was incompatible with human rights.

Combined with a flurry of court rulings Tuesday in the case of a comatose Frenchman whose family is divided over whether to withdraw treatment, the cases drew renewed attention to the legal struggle over medical treatments for the terminally ill or those in vegetative states.

France's top administrative court said Tuesday that doctors could withhold food and hydration for Vincent Lambert, noting that he had made his wishes clear before the car accident six years ago that left him brain-dead.

Lambert's wife, Rachel, is seeking to let the former psychiatric nurse die, but his parents took legal action last year to halt his doctors’ plans to do that.

“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 France’s BFM television on Wednesday. “From our perspective, there is no reason to stop feeding or hydrating him.”

In a highly unusual late-night ruling, the European Court of Human Rights overruled the French court’s decision hours after it was made. It ordered France to continue treatment until it could examine the case. The human rights court, although based in Strasbourg, France, has jurisdiction across Europe, and member countries are bound by its rulings.

The Lambert case echoes the legal fight over Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped and she entered what doctors refer to as a "persistent vegetative state," or prolonged coma. She died in 2005 after her husband won a protracted court case with Schiavo's parents to have her feeding tube removed.

Gray areas

While few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide, French President François Hollande promised prior to his 2012 election to introduce new right-to-die legislation.

However, he left gray areas regarding the so-called Leonetti law of 2005, which does not legalize euthanasia but does state, according to government information services, that patient treatment should not involve "unreasonable obstinacy.”

While Hollande has yet to deliver on his promise of legislation by the end of the year on the rights of the incurably ill, the legal battles over Lambert's fate and other cases have thrust the euthanasia debate firmly back into the public sphere.

As many as 25,000 people die each year in France after removal of medical support, according to Remi Keller, a member of the Council of State.

Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Wire services

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