Europe's top human rights court on Friday allowed France to take a man in a coma off life support, in a case that has drawn nationwide attention amid debate about end-of-life practices and could influence the extent to which laws across the continent endorse euthanasia.
The European Court of Human Rights upheld a ruling by France's top administrative court last June that authorized doctors to end the intravenous feeding and hydration keeping alive 38-year-old car crash victim Vincent Lambert, who has been deemed to be in a vegetative state.
The rights court said that ending Lambert’s life support would not infringe on the Article 2 clause on the right to life in the European Convention of Human Rights, a pact established in the wake of World War II. The court said that the 47 members of the Council of Europe — which coordinates between European countries on legal and other issues — should be afforded leeway on permitting the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment because "there was no consensus" on the issue among its member states.
In a news release following the ruling, the European Court of Human Rights said it had "reiterated that it was primarily for the domestic authorities to verify whether the decision to withdraw treatment was compatible with the domestic legislation and the Convention, and to establish the patient’s wishes in accordance with national law."
The legal battle pitted Lambert's parents and two of his siblings — who argued that Lambert was showing signs of progress, including lifting his leg and swallowing, and just needed better care — against five other siblings and Lambert's wife, Rachel, who all said the life support should be halted.
His wife said it was clear that her husband would never have wanted to live in the condition he has been in since the 2008 car crash.
"There is no relief. There is no joy to express," she told reporters after the ruling. "We would like his wish to be fulfilled."
Lambert's mother, Viviane, decried the court's decision as a "death sentence for my son," saying she was "shocked" and "saddened" by the court's decision.
The drama surrounding Lambert's case began in January 2014, when Lambert's doctors, backed by his wife and five siblings, decided to stop the intravenous food and water in line with a 2005 passive euthanasia law in France. His devout Roman Catholic parents, along with his half-brother and sister, won an urgent court application to stop the plan, calling it "akin to torture."
In an appeal, France’s supreme administrative court or State Council ordered three doctors to draw up a report on Lambert's condition. The council ruled in June 2014 that withdrawing care from a person with no hope of recovery was lawful.
Lambert's parents then took the case to the rights court, which ordered France to keep him alive while it decided whether the State Council's decision was in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case ignited a fierce debate over euthanasia in France, where it remains illegal despite recent efforts to ease legislation covering the terminally ill — a campaign promise by President Francois Hollande. But lawmakers in the country's lower house of parliament passed a bill in March that allowed for what's known as terminal sedation, in which doctors sedate patients until they die. The measure still needs approval by the country's senate.
Few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as in the U.S. states of Vermont, Oregon and Washington.
Separately, the California state Senate on Thursday passed a measure that would shield physicians from prosecution if they give terminally ill adults the option of medical aid in dying. The measure will be sent to the state Assembly, the lower house of the California legislature. Only mentally competent patients in their final months would be covered, and the bill would require them to take the deadly medication themselves.
Al Jazeera and wire services