en years after Terri Schiavo’s plight split her family and people in the US, the battle to decide Vincent Lambert’s fate is doing the same to his family and France.
Lambert (39), a psychiatric nurse, has been in a coma since a motorcycle accident in 2008 left him tetraplegic and severely brain damaged.
Like Schiavo’s husband, Michael, Lambert’s wife, Rachel, and six of his siblings want life support to be withdrawn as his doctors believe there is no hope of recovery.
But Lambert’s devout Roman Catholic parents – like Schiavo’s parents Robert and Mary Schindler – and two of his siblings argue that would be murder.
Pierre and Viviane Lambert insist their stricken son has shown signs of progress and believe he just needs better care.
So, like the Schindlers, Pierre and Viviane turned to the courts to ensure life support was continued – igniting a fierce debate over the right to die in France (as Schiavo did in the US) where euthanasia is illegal.
Terri Schiavo died on March 31 2005 after her feeding tube was removed by order of a Florida judge acting at the request of her husband. She was 41 and had spent nearly half her life in a vegetative state after suffering a cardiac arrest aged 26. This caused a severe lack of oxygen and brain damage.
The Schindlers opposed the request and almost 10 years of legal bickering ensued before feeding was withdrawn. Like the Schindlers, Lambert’s parents are unlikely to be successful.
In a major setback on Friday and in a landmark decision, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the decision of a French court to allow Lambert to be taken off life support.
The case was taken to the European court last year after France’s highest court had ruled in favour of ending his life support.
Lambert is being kept alive with the use of intravenous food and water at a hospital in Reims in northeastern France.
In January last year, Lambert’s doctors – backed by his wife and six of his eight siblings plus a nephew – decided to stop the intravenous food and water keeping him alive in line with a 2005 passive euthanasia law in France.
The decision was made after Lambert appeared to resist attempts to be fed, suggesting he wanted to die, reported The Telegraph newspaper in London.
But his parents, half-brother and sister won an urgent court application to stop the plan, arguing that Lambert was suffering from a “handicap”, not an “incurable brain disease”.
In an appeal, the French Supreme Administrative Court, known as the Council of State, ordered three doctors to draw up a report on Lambert’s condition and in June last year ruled that the decision to withdraw care from a man with no hope of recovery was lawful, according to The Telegraph.
Lambert’s parents then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered France to keep Lambert alive while it deliberated on whether the council’s decision was in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. On Friday, the court ruled that it was. Reacting to the ruling, a tearful Rachel Lambert said her husband would never have wanted to be kept alive artificially and that she wanted to “let him go”.
“My thoughts are very much with my husband. There’s no relief, no joy to express. We’d just like his will to be done,” she said.
But her distraught motherin-law vowed not to give up, saying: “It’s scandalous. They are condemning my son. We will remain by Vincent’s side and will continue to fight.”
However, the court’s ruling is unlikely to be the last word on the issue as Terri Schiavo’s story shows. In the 10 years since her passing, the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo have continued to clash. They disagreed over her burial and both parties have also been involved in activism over the larger issues.
They have also written books telling their side of the story. As for how it has changed the US, the answer is clear. NBC News said on the 10th anniversary of her death this year: “Ten years after Terri Schiavo, death debates still divide us.”
LET HIM GO Rachel Lambert, wife of Vincent Lambert, a Frenchman who has been in a coma for seven years, arrives with her lawyer, Laurent Pettiti, to listen to a verdict about her husband in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France
STAYING ALIVE Mary Schindler reaches out to her daughter, Terri Schiavo, in her hospital bed