Vincent Lambert, Frenchman at Center of Right-to-Die Case, Dies at 42


PARIS — Vincent Lambert, a former nurse who had been in a vegetative state for over a decade, died on Thursday in Reims, France, after an intense family dispute over his fate that led to years of legal battles and put him at the center of right-to-die debates. He was 42.

Mr. Lambert’s death was confirmed by Jean Paillot, a lawyer for his parents. Doctors had stopped artificially feeding and hydrating Mr. Lambert earlier this month after a final court ruling in his case, and placed him under heavy sedation.

Mr. Lambert had been kept alive artificially since suffering severe brain damage in a road accident in 2008, and had not left any written instructions about his end-of-life wishes.

His wife, Rachel Lambert, said that he had clearly stated that he would not wish to live in a vegetative state, while his parents argued that ending his life support amounted to the murder of a disabled person. Siblings and other family members also took differing sides in the dispute.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in France. But the law allows patients who are terminally ill or injured with no chances of recovery to decide to stop treatments if the measures “appear useless, disproportionate” or if they seem to have no other effect than “artificially maintaining life.”

If a patient is no longer able to express a decision, as was Mr. Lambert’s case, doctors may stop treatment in close consultation with family members.

Mr. Lambert’s parents, observant Roman Catholics who gained the support of anti-euthanasia activists, argued that the law should not apply in this case because their son was not terminally ill and was a disabled person in need of protection.

But Rachel Lambert, who was made Mr. Lambert’s legal guardian in 2016, pointed to multiple medical assessments that found her husband to be in an irreversible vegetative state, and to court rulings that said artificially feeding and hydrating him to keep him alive constituted “unreasonable obstinacy” as defined by French law.

A vegetative state can be defined as a condition that occurs when the part of the brain that controls thought and behavior no longer works, but vital functions such as the sleep cycle, body temperature control and breathing persist.

People in a vegetative state can sometimes open their eyes and have basic reflexes, but they do not have a meaningful response to stimulation or display signs of experiencing emotions.

In an interview with the BFM TV news channel earlier this month about her husband’s case, Ms. Lambert said that she wanted to “finally see him a free man,” and expressed discomfort with the attention his case had drawn.

“It’s a medical decision, which should stay within the private life of our family,” Ms. Lambert said. “Vincent should not be a standard-bearer, in one way or another. He should just be seen as a unique person.”

But Viviane Lambert, Mr. Lambert’s mother, had brought his case to the United Nations in hopes of putting diplomatic pressure on France to keep his life support on. Mr. Lambert’s parents had referred his case to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a United Nations-affiliated body.

“Without your intercession, my son, Vincent Lambert, will be euthanized by a doctor because of his cerebral disability,” she said this week in Geneva before the United Nations Human Rights Council. “He is in a state of minimal consciousness, but he is not a vegetable.”

Mr. Lambert’s life support was initially withdrawn in May, but the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had asked the French authorities to stay any decision, and a surprise court ruling in favor of Mr. Lambert’s parents bolstered that request. A higher court later struck that ruling down, and agreed with the French state that the Committee’s request was not legally binding.

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