March 20, 2008 / 2:04 PM / 12 years ago

"Right to die" death reopens French suicide debate

PARIS (Reuters) - A French “right to die” advocate refused permission for an assisted suicide has been found dead in the latest twist to a drama that has reopened a euthanasia debate the country thought it had concluded three years ago.

Officials gave no details on Thursday about how Chantal Sebire, 52, died late on Wednesday. She suffered from a rare and painful sinus tumor that robbed her of taste, smell and sight and made her eye sockets bulge out many times their normal size.

On Monday, a court in Dijon refused her request for medical help to die because that would breach medical ethics and an end-of-life law passed in 2005 that allows “passive euthanasia” but bars assisted suicide.

Government spokesman Luc Chatel said Jean Leonetti, the deputy from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party who wrote that law, would review it in the next few weeks to see “if there is now the will to go further than the law of 2005”.

The Sebire case, heavily covered by French media in recent weeks, has prompted calls for a new law allowing for exceptions to the assisted suicide ban in extreme cases. But just as many politicians warned that legalized euthanasia could be misused.

“We will have to act quickly, because exceptional cases like that of Chantal Sebire are occurring regularly,” Chatel said.

The euthanasia debate also occurs regularly in France, where polls show many sympathize with suffering patients seeking a painless death but balk at legalizing active euthanasia.


The 2005 law was passed after a mother helped a doctor end the life of her son who was left blind, mute and paralyzed after a road accident and campaigned for 2-1/2 years for permission to have a lethal injection.

Leonetti, who is also a medical doctor, said the 2005 law allowed doctors to sedate terminal patients heavily and wait for their death, but Sebire insisted on “active euthanasia”.

“I don’t know how Chantal Sebire died, but one could imagine that she took her own life,” Leonetti said on Thursday.

Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot, who opposes euthanasia, said the 2005 law was not understood and should be better explained to doctors and patients. “Active euthanasia means asking a doctor to administer death,” she said.

But Nadine Morano, the newly appointed state secretary for family issues, argued for a new law that would allow a panel of experts to decide on euthanasia in extreme cases.

Sarkozy, who has indicated he did not want to go beyond the 2005 law, has taken an interest in the case and met Sebire’s doctor on Wednesday only hours before she died.

Active euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. French courts regularly rule against doctors who administer lethal drugs to end life but often spare them prison sentences as a gesture of mercy.

Opponents of euthanasia, including the Roman Catholic Church, say the sanctity of life overrides all other factors. Many also say a right to kill patients could easily be abused.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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