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France could soon have draft law on assisted suicide for terminally ill people

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8644 (Published 20 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8644
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. 1Hamburg

A report commissioned by the French government has recommended that laws be changed in France to allow medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

The report, prepared by a special commission on the end of life led by Didier Sicard, professor of medicine at the University Paris Descartes, was released on 18 December.1On the same day a new bill was introduced in the Belgian parliament to expand the current 10 year old euthanasia law to include children and patients with Alzheimer’s disease.2

The activity on the controversial issue comes just weeks after the publication of a major survey and of a university study indicating that a large majority of Europeans are in favour of legalising assisted suicide.3 4 The only European countries that currently allow assisted suicide are the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. In the United States assisted suicide is legal in the states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana.

Sicard, former head of France’s national ethics council, personally delivered the 197 page report to France’s president, François Hollande, at a press conference in the presidential palace. Hollande, who during his presidential campaign earlier this year had pledged to look at changing France’s law on the issue, said that he would forward the report to the national ethics council for its input. Draft legislation for a new French law could be ready by summer.

Sicard told the press that he was opposed to legalising “active euthanasia” (entailing the use of lethal substances rather than the withholding of life prolonging treatment) and clinics such as Dignitas in Switzerland that help people end their lives.5 But he said that France should allow doctors to “accelerate the coming of death” of terminally ill patients who had made repeated requests for help to die and that doctors could be involved in the process after consultation with medical colleagues.

“The existing legislation does not meet the legitimate concerns expressed by people who are gravely and incurably ill,” he said.

The so called acceleration of death with doctor assistance could be allowed under three circumstances, he said: when a patient has made an explicit request to die; when a family has asked for life support or nourishment of an unconscious patient to be withdrawn; or when a person is in a vegetative state.

Most adults in 12 western European countries favour legalising medically assisted suicide, found a poll released in late November by the Swiss Medical Lawyers Association.3 Germany topped the list, with 87% of respondents saying that people should have the right to die. The United Kingdom was the fourth highest at 82%. Denmark was in 11th place at 71%, with Greece in 12th at 52%.

Researchers at Bangor University in Wales found that a majority of 62 000 people represented in an international systematic review supported medically assisted suicide. The study, published in Palliative Medicine,4said that alleviating “unbearable suffering” was a key concern among people who supported medically assisted suicide. It added, “The consistency of international views indicates a mandate for legislative and medical systems worldwide to listen and understand this.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8644

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