May 19, 2024

President Emmanuel Macron on Monday faced criticism from French medical workers and the Catholic Church over a draft bill his government plans to present to parliament in May that would allow assisted dying for certain terminally-ill patients.

The centrist leader announced the plan to submit the bill in newspaper interviews published on Sunday, insisting there would be “strict conditions” on allowing people to self-administer a lethal substance, or call on a relative or medical worker if they are incapable.

The move comes after France’s parliament last week enshrined the right to abortion in the constitution, a widely-popular move championed by the president and a world first.

“There are cases we can’t humanly accept,” Macron told Catholic newspaper La Croix and left-wing Liberation, saying the “brotherly” law “looks death in the face”.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal wrote on X that the bill would be presented to the French parliament from May 27. “Death can no longer be a taboo issue and subject to silence,” he added.

But several health workers’ groups declared their “consternation, anger and sadness” at the plan.

Macron “has with great violence announced a system far removed from patients’ needs and health workers’ daily reality, which could have grave consequences on the care relationship,” the associations for palliative care, cancer support and specialist nurses said in a joint statement.

Accusing the government of aiming to save money with the plan, they said that greater resources for palliative care, rather than assisted dying, would fulfil patients’ demands to “die with dignity”.

– Campaign promise –

At present, French law allows for “deep and continuous sedation” of patients who would otherwise endure great suffering and with a short life expectancy.

But updating the rules was one of Macron’s presidential campaign promises, and he gathered an assembly of randomly-selected citizens to deliberate.

They issued a non-binding decision in 2023 that assisted dying should be allowed under certain conditions.

The draft law he has now proposed would open assisted dying to adults “fully capable of discernment” — ruling out psychiatric and Alzheimer’s patients, for example.

They would have to be suffering from an “incurable” condition likely to be fatal in the “short or medium term”, causing suffering that is “resistant to treatment”.

Patients’ request for assisted dying would be ruled on by their medical team within two weeks. If approved, they would get a prescription for a lethal substance that could be self-administered.

People suffering from certain conditions, such as motor neurone disease, would be able to nominate someone to administer the lethal dose or get help from a health worker.

Beyond assisted dying, the law would also pump a billion euros ($1.1 billion) into palliative care over 10 years, Macron told the newspapers, also vowing to open 21 new centres in under-served areas.

– ‘Towards death’ –

“France is finally emerging from the dilly-dallying of the last few months,” the Association for the Right to Die in Dignity (ADMD) said in a statement.

The group hailed the “relatively precise timetable” for the law to come before parliament.

But ADMD also objected to some provisions, such as the choice to rule out requests in advance from Alzheimer’s sufferers.

“I hope (the law) will allow us to find what we wish for when we’re close to the end, which is calm,” assisted dying campaigner Loic Resibois, who suffers from motor neurone disease, told broadcaster France Inter.

“Knowing that French law will finally allow us to avoid a situation where we’re not yet dead, but not really alive any more, is very important,” he added.

Meanwhile France’s Catholic bishops categorically rejected the bill.

“A law like this, whatever its aim, will bend our whole health system towards death as a solution,” bishops’ conference chief Eric de Moulins-Beaufort told La Croix.

Macron was offering “a perfectly wrapped up text on what he calls ‘assisted dying’, but on palliative care it’s vague promises with very rough numbers,” he added.

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