Three European courts grapple with end-of-life dilemmas

PARIS Wed Jun 25, 2014 1:07pm EDT

PARIS (Reuters) - Three European courts stepped carefully around delicate end-of-life issues on Wednesday, with one rejecting assisted suicide, another delaying it and a third acquitting a doctor from charges he murdered dying patients.

The varied rulings by Britain's Supreme Court, the European Court of Human Rights and a regional French court reflected the difficulty of drawing a clear legal line between aiding terminal patients to die in peace and committing murder.

In Europe, Belgium, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland allow assisted suicide, and opinion polls show broad support in several other countries.

But opposition - especially from religious groups - is strong and countries such as France considering legalization often find the issue to be a political minefield.

Britain's Supreme Court judges ruled seven-to-two against appeals to allow assisted suicide from a paralyzed car crash victim and the widow of a man who had locked-in syndrome.

The European Court of Human Rights, responding to a last-ditch appeal by the parents of a tetraplegic man in a coma, told France not to end his life support despite a ruling allowing that by the country's highest administrative court on Tuesday.

Also in France, a court in the southwestern city of Pau acquitted a doctor of charges of murdering seven dying patients by lethal injection. He said he did it to end their suffering and some victims' relatives testified in court in his favor.

LAW AND RIGHTS

Even while rejecting appeals to allow assisted suicide, the British judgment reflected a trend toward possibly accepting it that encouraged groups campaigning for its legalization.

The Supreme Court was ruling on appeals brought by Paul Lamb, who has only been able to move his right hand since his 1990 car crash, and the widow of Tony Nicklinson, who was almost completely paralyzed by a stroke and died on hunger strike after a lower court refused his request for assisted suicide.

"These appeals arise out of tragic facts and raise difficult and significant issues," said the judgment, which concluded the court could declare such cases incompatible with European human rights law but wanted to leave that decision to Parliament.

Dignity in Dying, which supports assisted suicide, said the ruling showed Britain's law against it was "under pressure and may be declared incompatible with human rights law.

The emergency decision by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights did not rule on the legality of the French court's decision to allow an end to life support for Vincent Lambert, who has been in a coma since a 2008 motorbike accident.

It only granted a delay sought by his parents, who opposed efforts by Lambert's wife to discontinue his artificial nutrition and hydration in a family battle recalling the case of Terry Schiavo in the United States. She died in 2005.

In the Pau case, the prosecution only asked for a suspended sentence against Doctor Nicolas Bonnemaison, but the court decided that no homicidal intent had been proven.

FINE LINE

Several French cases of terminal patients dying from injections of painkillers by nurses or doctors have ended with suspended sentences in recent years, showing the court was lenient but felt it had to declare the defendants guilty under the law.

This prompted President Francois Hollande to promise to allow some kind of assisted suicide during his 2012 election campaign, but he has hesitated about proposing it.

Health Minister Marisol Touraine said Bonnemaison's acquittal was "a humane decision" and added: "The government will work on giving a new legal framework to the end of life."

Alain Claeys, a Socialist lawmaker tasked with drafting the new law, warned against taking the verdict as a precedent.

"One must not conclude that, just because Dr Bonnemaison was acquitted, all doctors now have the right to end the life of their patients without anyone asking them," he said.

In London, opponents of assisted suicide interpreted the British court's ruling as support for the present law that makes helping someone commit suicide a crime.

"The law in England and Wales remains unchanged, with the Court recognizing that it exists to protect vulnerable, elderly and disabled people," said Andrew Fergusson, spokesman for a group called Care Not Killing.

Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre said: ""The murder law is there to set the highest priority on the importance and value of life and to protect it."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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