The Corner

Politics & Policy

UN Committee Tries to Save ‘French Terri Schiavo’

Terri Schiavo with her mother Mary Schindler in 2001. (Handout via Reuters)

Vincent Lambert was catastrophically injured in an automobile accident in France in 2008. He has been diagnosed as in a persistent unconscious condition. But he apparently only requires tube feeding to maintain life — and according to European Center for Law and Justice, has regained his swallow reflex.

A family is deeply divided about whether to pull his feeding tube so he dehydrates to death. His wife and siblings want all sustenance stopped, which means he will die slowly over 14 days. His parents and half siblings want it continued.

Sound familiar? Yes, the facts and resulting bitterness are very similar to the Terri Schaivo imbroglio that tore our country apart more than a decade ago.

The French and EU courts have ruled that the feeding tube can be pulled. But the Committee on the Rights the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations has intervened, and demanded that the dehydration be delayed pending its further study. From the European Center’s report about the case:

It is not one but two decisions that have already been taken by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) regarding the Lambert case: firstly they registered the application lodged by the parents of Vincent Lambert and secondly they requested interim measures.

The request was first examined by the Secretary-General of the CRPD which considered that it fulfilled the “preliminary criteria” of admissibility and consequently registered and communicated it to the French Government (Article 56 of the Rules of procedure of the Committee). This is a first step that already shows that the request is well formulated and falls within the scope of the Committee.

The French Government now has six months to answer the charges against the French medical and judicial decisions, both on the admissibility and the merits of the request.

France ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Lambert’s legal representative claim that means the dehydration must be delayed pending further proceedings by the Committee. France’s Health Minister said the country is not legally bound to comply but that there would be an official response.

I don’t know the legalities here, but my sympathies are with the parents. There is no question that — just like Terri Schiavo — the pulling of the feeding tube will lead to a slow and cruel death by dehydration. That’s the point of pulling the tube!

The media have called this a right to die case. I think of it actually as a no right to live case. Lambert wouldn’t be considered an end of life circumstance but for the plan to withdraw all food and fluids.

The European Center calls the action euthanasia. Technically and legally, it is removing medical treatment. But in food and fluids cases such as this, that distinction sure seems blurry as — in contrast to, say, withdrawing breathing assistance or antibiotics — there can only be one outcome!

If a convicted mass murderer was denied sustenance onto death as a means of execution, people would rightfully be up in arms. That so many of the population support taking the medically unnecessary act of dehydrating people with profound cognitive disabilities to death, illustrates precisely why the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognized the need to intervene.

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