PARIS -- A French man who was in a vegetative state for 11 years while his wife and parents disagreed over his continued medical care died Thursday, and a prosecutor quickly ordered an autopsy and an investigation.
Vincent Lambert, 42, died in a hospital east of Paris nine days after doctors stopped providing artificial feeding and hydration and following years of contrary court rulings over whether medical interventions should prolong his life.
A 2008 car crash left Lambert in a vegetative state, and he needed to receive nutrition to sustain him by artificial means. Lambert's parents, Pierre and Viviene, fought relentlessly to keep their son alive.
The traditionalist Catholic couple filed a legal complaint for attempted murder on July 4 to prevent actions that would lead to his death. Their lawyers had said a homicide complaint would be filed when he died.
Lambert's treatment was suspended after France's highest court overturned a Paris court's decision to resume the artificial feeding so a United Nations committee on the rights of people with disabilities could examine the case
Lambert's wife, Rachel, had argued he should be allowed to die and supported withholding artificial nutrition. A nephew who emerged as the spokesman for the side of the family with that view, Francois Lambert, expressed relief Thursday, saying "it's the rational that takes over."
"We've been ready for years," he said.
The prosecutor of Reims, where Lambert was treated, said he opened an investigation into the causes of Lambert's death Thursday. Prosecutor Mathieu Bourrette said an autopsy on the body would be conducted Friday at the Medical-Legal Institute in Paris.
Bourrette said he opened the probe "after years of judicial proceedings and open conflict between members of the family of Vincent Lambert."
"In my eyes, it is indispensable," he said, and "the most objective, impartial and independent way" to provide the exact cause of death to family members, medical personnel and "in memory of Vincent Lambert himself,"
Getting ahead of legal snarls, he said the autopsy, including toxicology tests, now would avoid a later need to remove the buried body if needed for a murder investigation. Results could take weeks or months, he said.
The case has drawn attention around Europe.
The Vatican quickly reacted, saying it "learned with sorrow of the death of Vincent Lambert."
A statement expressed "our closeness" to "all those who assisted him with love and devotion." Coming down on the side of those who tried to keep Lambert alive, the statement quoted Pope Francis speaking in the past about the case and saying that "we have the duty to always protect (life)" and "not cede to throwaway culture."
In May, two top Vatican officials, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, in charge of Catholic laity, and the Vatican's top bioethics official, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, issued a statement saying that providing food and water to the sick is an "inescapable duty" and "suspending such care represents a form of abandonment."
Doctors resumed and cut off feedings several times based on rulings in various courts, which examined the case at the behest of Lambert's parents.
Legal battles began in 2013. In the latest twist on June 28, France's highest court gave doctors permission to restart procedures introduced in May to stop feeding and hydrating Lambert.
The Court of Cassation quashed a previous decision by a Paris court to resume life support after the parents appealed to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The high court ruled that the Paris court ordering life support to be resumed wasn't competent in the case.
Unbeknownst to him, the man lying in a hospital bed became central to the debate leading up to France's 2016 law on terminally ill patients. The law allows doctors to stop life-sustaining treatments, including artificial hydration and nutrition, and to keep the person sedated until death. It stops short, however, of legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide.
The European Court of Human Rights and the Council of State, France's top administrative body, had upheld the doctors' earlier decision to stop Lambert's life support, with the court finding the move didn't violate Lambert's rights.
Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.