Court upholds decision to keep brain-damaged Frenchman alive

REIMS, France – French court on Friday upheld a hospital's decision to keep a brain-damaged man alive in a case that has divided his family.

The judges said Vincent Lambert's doctors were within their rights, based on their "professional and moral independence," to suspend an earlier court decision that would have seen them cut the intravenous food and water keeping the 38-year-old alive.

The decision by the court in Chalons-en-Champagne, in northern France, is the latest twist in a protracted legal battle that has pitted the family members of Lambert, who has been in a persistent vegetative state since a 2008 road accident, against each other.

On one side is Lambert's wife Rachel, his nephew Francois, and six of his siblings – who say the former psychiatric nurse would never have wanted to be kept alive artificially.

On the other stand his devout Catholic parents who insist on keeping Lambert alive. His mother Viviane believes her son would improve with better care.

The European Court of Human Rights had in June backed an earlier decision by a French court to allow Lambert to be taken off life support.

That ruling, by the French supreme administrative court known as the State Council, was decided following an examination by court-appointed experts who ruled Lambert was in an irreversible vegetative state.

But his parents and two siblings appealed to the Strasbourg-based European court in a desperate bid to stop doctors from withdrawing intravenous feeding after exhausting their legal options in France.

'Responsibility back on doctor' 

The European court agreed that the French court decision did not violate European rights laws.

According to Friday's court ruling, the decision to stop intravenous feeding can be undertaken "solely by the doctor in charge of care." The hospital may not oppose it.

The judges also ruled that the previous medical decision could not be imposed on a new doctor.

"This judgement throws the burden of responsibility back on to the doctor, who shrinks from the pressure from pro-life activists and members of Vincent's family," said Francois Lambert, the nephew.

Interviewed Tuesday by a French television station, French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said "no court forces a hospital to stop treatments, it's up to hospital management to take that decision."

"The European court has said it is possible but the hospital has decided until now to take a little time," she added.

In France, euthanasia is illegal but French MPs on Tuesday adopted legislation to allow medics to place terminally ill patients in a deep sleep. The text must still be examined by the Senate.

Euthanasia is officially legal in only three countries in Europe -- Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg -- but others allow or tolerate a form of assisted suicide. In Switzerland, as well as in the US states of Vermont, Oregon and Washington for example, assisted suicide is legal.

In Britain, a bill that would have allowed some terminally ill patients to end their lives was rejected this month after it sparked fierce opposition from religious leaders. –