France has been examining whether to change its law on euthanasia. Denis Berthiau, a lecturer at Université Paris-Cité, specialising in Bioethics Law, looks into this issue.
What is the situation regarding the right to die in France?
More than a year ago, Emmanuel Macron expressed the desire to change the current law (euthanasia as active assistance in dying is still prohibited by the Penal Code). To this end, a citizens’ convention was convened in early 2023.
It came to two conclusions. On the one hand, it recognised the need to improve dying in France by guaranteeing better access to palliative care. On the other, it recognised the need to take into account certain situations in which requests for assistance are made, and to develop a legal framework for assisted dying, either in the form of assisted suicide or “euthanasia”.
What’s the difference between “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia”?
With “assisted suicide”, the patient initiates the act that causes their death. In this sense, it is indeed a suicide. In “euthanasia”, the lethal act is carried out by the doctor and his team. It always takes place at the patient’s request, in the framework of medical assistance in the dying process. The difference, then, lies in the degree of medical involvement in the act of accompanying a patient to death. And it is precisely this point which is undoubtedly delaying the government’s project.
Macron speaks of an “ethical vertigo” regarding this issue. Why?
Most medical issues provoke an “ethical vertigo”. Reducing end-of-life issues to whether or not to allow euthanasia or assisted suicide is far too simplistic. But it is certain that the new law will not solve all the problems. It will only benefit a few people. The vast majority of patients do not want to hasten their death. Nor will the law concern people at the end of their lives who are incapable of expressing their wishes. But the fact that the ethical challenge may seem vertiginous doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it.