French Woman's Euthanasia Request Denied

A recent case sparks new debate worldwide on the choice to end life.

February 9, 2009, 9:44 AM

March 18, 2008 — -- A French teacher suffering from a rare case of cancer that has left her disfigured lost a request Monday that she had lodged in a court to be allowed to die by euthanasia.

Chantal Sébire, 52, suffers from esthesioneuroblastoma, an incurable tumor attacking her nose and sinuses. It has left her disfigured, blind, without the sense of smell or taste and in terrible pain.

About 1,000 cases of the rare cancer have been reported worldwide in the last 20 years. In a request she filed in a court in the eastern city of Dijon, Sébire cited "intense and permanent suffering" and the "incurable character of the disease she is suffering from" as reasons for "her refusal to have to support the irreversible degradation of her state."

But the court ruled that Sébire could not have a doctor help her die because it would breach medical ethics and French law, under which assisted suicide is a crime.

Sébire's lawyer Gilles Antonowicz denounced the decision as "total hypocrisy" and called on President Nicolas Sarkozy to change the law on the end of life.

"Our law is inhuman. The law must be changed because we see that people are left on the side of the road," Antonowicz said at a news conference Monday in Paris. He spoke briefly with his client, who he said is "extremely tired."

Sébire's case has received widespread news coverage and has renewed the euthanasia debate in France.

Although active euthanasia, the act of taking steps to facilitate a person's death, is illegal in France, a 2005 law allows doctors to withhold treatment with a terminally ill patient's consent in certain circumstances -- widely known as "passive euthanasia."

But many think this law is insufficient. Last year, more that 2,000 doctors and nurses signed a petition saying they had helped patients to die with dignity, stressing the law "is still repressive and unfair as ever as it is not in sync with the medical reality."

Active euthanasia is decriminalized in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. There have been several cases of active euthanasia involving foreign nationals in these countries over the years.

"This court decision inflicts on Chantal Sébire a sentence of suffering for life," Jean-Luc Romero, president of the association for the right to die with dignity, an organization that regroups 40,000 people in France, told ABC News.

But several government members have already reacted over this case. Prime Minister François Fillon told RTL radio last week that "the difficulty for me in this case is that we are at the limit of what society can say, of what the law can do. I think one must have the modesty to recognize that society cannot answer all these questions."

French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot told the same radio station that "neither the medical world nor the authorities can promote active euthanasia, whatever the gravity of the illness."

And the Archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin, told French newspaper Aujourd'hui en France, Monday, that "one must never make legislation in the grip of emotion. … No one has the right to give death."

But on the streets of France, public reaction differed from that of the public officials.

"I think euthanasia should be legalized in certain circumstances. It must not be abused. It has to be within a strict law frame," Charlotte Leblanc, a student from Levallois, told ABC News.

"I think everybody has the right to die with dignity," said Delphine Steinberg of Paris. "France is rather behind on many things. But it could change, with this kind of case."

Romero is hopeful public outcry over Sébire's fight could serve to sway lawmakers.

"Chantal's fight moves the French public opinion, and when we see the reactions on [the] Internet, we see that there is something strong happening. Maybe that French lawmakers will start a real debate, will listen to what people are saying and will vote a law. It's time to end the hypocrisy," Romero said.

On Friday, in a telephone interview on French TV, Sébire said she would not appeal the court's decision if it was turned down, after the general prosecutor declared her request as "inadmissible." She also confirmed that she was ready to go to a foreign country to obtain what she is wishing for.

"I know now how to obtain what I need [to die], and if I cannot obtain it in France, I will obtain it elsewhere," she told France 5, adding that if she did not get the right to die by euthanasia, she "will not go in peace."

"It is unfortunate in 2008 to have to leave [the country] as a thief to go die in a foreign country," her lawyer Antonowicz said.