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France launches a national debate on assisted suicide laws

origin 1FILE: Protesters dressed as mimes hold placards reading “no to euthanasia of the elderly, solidarity is urgent”, in Paris, June 2014 ©AP Photo

France will launch a national debate this week on whether to change the laws on end-of-life, assisted suicide.

The consultative process involves 150 French people, drawn by lot, who will discuss the issue in meetings between now and March, and report their conclusions to the government.

The goal is to evaluate whether or not to modify the existing law, known as Claeys-Leonetti, which prohibits euthanasia and assisted suicide. This law – adopted in 2016 after a first version of 2005 – allows for “deep and continuous sedation until death” for incurable patients with “short-term” vital prognosis and unbearable suffering.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the citizens’ convention earlier this year, following an opinion from the National Consultative Committee on Ethics (CCNE).

The CCNE had, for the first time, believed that it was possible to envisage an “active assistance in dying”, subject to “strict conditions”.

This nuanced opinion was not unanimously expressed by Committee members. However, it marks an unprecedented development for this body, which until now had always excluded this possibility.

It will provide a framework for discussions of the Citizens’ Convention.

The participants in the conference, drawn by lot and weighted by age and geographical origin, will be trained in the debate on the end of life and will meet personalities such as Alain Claeys and Jean Leonetti.

They will also study the legislation of other countries, some of which, such as Belgium and Switzerland, have legalized euthanasia to varying degrees.

Spain legalizes euthanasia and assisted suicide despite conservative opposition
The German court rules that the ban on assisted suicide violates the right of citizens to determine their own death
The new law permitting assisted suicide enters into force in Austria

But what will the government do with their findings?

“I can’t imagine that there will be no follow-up to the work of the convention,” said Thierry Beaudet, president of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, which is organizing the discussions.

However, the government has insisted that recommendations from citizens’ discussions could only provide food for thought and not necessarily prompt a change in the law.

“It is never a good idea to discuss”, but “the President of the Republic will decide”. Agnès Firmin Le Bodothe French minister for health professions, told reporters in November.

Macron’s intentions seem uncertain. The head of state, who initially seemed very intent on “moving” towards the end of life, has recently appeared more reticent. He won’t be attending the convention opening on Friday.

The executive’s position is all the more difficult to grasp as different channels of discussion are open.

Olivier Véran, Minister for Democratic Renewal, and Agnès Firmin le Bodo have engaged in parallel consultations with MPs and health professionals on the issue.

The Ministry of Health said these discussions do not encroach on the role of the Citizens’ Convention and aim to reflect on better organization of palliative care, among other issues.

There is also a parliamentary mission to assess existing law led by a politician who openly supports the legalization of euthanasia – which is still opposed by the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, and by my aides – even though polls show a growing public support for it.

“The end of life is a subject that requires nuance; we cannot settle for polls,” warned Thierry Beaudet.