Vincent Lambert, 42, sustained severe brain damage in a car accident in 2008 and has been on life support at Sebastopol Hospital in Reims, northeast France, where medical experts have determined that his situation is irreversible.
But for more than five years, legal battles have raged between his family members over whether he should be kept alive, igniting a watershed debate in the country and drawing in international bodies, the French President and even the Pope. On Monday, that fight appeared to have finally reached its end, with a judicial ruling that allowed doctors to take Lambert off life support.
That decision, in line with the wishes of his wife and siblings, followed a similar conclusion from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It prompted doctors to begin the process of “passive” euthanasia, which is legal in France.
But a last-ditch effort from Lambert’s devout Catholic parents, who have been campaigning to keep him alive, halted the move hours later. An appeals court ruled in their favor, concluding that support cannot be withdrawn until an ongoing report by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is completed.
“They were starting to eliminate Vincent,” his mother, Viviane, told AFP after the ruling. “This is a very big victory. They are going to restore nutrition and give him drink. For once I am proud of the courts.”
Lambert’s nephew, by contrast, said that restoring his treatment would be “pure sadism by the medical-judicial system.”
The deep divisions within Lambert’s family are reflected throughout French society, and Monday’s about-turn was just the latest twist in a case that has prompted people on both sides to pour onto the streets.
French President Emmanuel Macron rejected calls from the parents to intervene in a long Facebook post on Monday, before the appeals verdict was announced. “Like all of you, I am deeply moved by the situation of Vincent Lambert,” he wrote.
“It is not up to me to suspend a decision which is the judgment of his doctors (and) in accordance with our laws,” Macron said, adding that he had followed the case for over a decade, first as a citizen and then as President.
He was responding to a march on Monday, organized with the help of Lambert’s parents, urging a presidential decree to keep Lambert on life support.
The Pope also intervened, tweeting after the initial court decision, “We pray for those who live with severe illness. Let us always safeguard life, God’s gift, from its beginning until its natural end. Let us not give in to a throwaway culture.”
But Lambert’s wife, Rachel, pleading for privacy, told RTL radio that “to see him go is to see him as a freed man.” She has said that Vincent told her before his accident that he would not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state.
A years-long saga
The ruling prompted celebrations among those demonstrating in support of Lambert’s parents.
“France has an obligation to respect the UN’s dispositions,” the parents’ lawyer Jean Paillot said as the crowd chanted “we have won.”
“It is a great victory, but it is only the first of many victories,” he added.
The Vatican, following up on Pope Francis’ tweet, released a statement saying that removing a patient’s food and water supply was “a type of abandonment of the sick person, based on a merciless judgment on the quality of life.”
“We hope, therefore, that efficient measures to safeguard the life of Mr Lambert be found,” they added.
But others condemned the appeals court for a decision that, they argued, would needlessly extend Lambert’s poor quality of life rather than allowing him to die humanely and providing his relatives with closure.
Describing the protesters’ celebrations as a “horrible scene,” French group Association for the Right to Die in Dignity said, “In which country do we live? To rejoice and shout ‘we won’ while we only lengthening the suffering of Vincent Lambert.”
Lambert had worked as a nurse until his near-fatal car crash in 2008. Attention on him intensified in 2013 when doctors and his wife agreed to take him off life support. France’s Leonetti Law allows doctors to stop medical treatments for end-of-life patients after the case has crossed a threshold of “irrational obstinacy.”
His parents objected, however, once doctors informed the rest of Lambert’s family about their plans.
The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, whose review prompted the hold-up of the original decision on Monday, has positioned itself against the European court by siding with Lambert’s parents. The body first asked France to suspend any decision to stop the treatments on May 3. It will now have the opportunity to study the case in greater depth.
CNN’s Benjamin Berteau contributed to this report.