French doctor acquitted for helping 7 patients die

PARIS - A French doctor was acquitted Wednesday of poisoning charges after giving lethal injections to help seven terminally ill patients die, adding urgency to the growing debate on who can decide when a person is beyond treatment.

Several relatives of Dr. Nicolas Bonnemaison's patients had testified on his behalf.

The case had drawn nationwide attention and emotion amid mounting calls in France to legalize euthanasia. It is currently legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Wednesday's decision comes the same day Britain's Supreme Court said that a ban on assisted suicide was incompatible with human rights.

The British decision was unexpectedly far-reaching. Although it dismissed the appeal from two severely disabled men who argued the law should be changed to allow doctors to legally kill them, the ruling suggested that Parliament change the law to be in line with human rights guarantees.

Combined with a flurry of court rulings Tuesday in the case of a comatose Frenchman whose family is divided over whether to withdraw treatment, the cases cast new light on the legal struggle over medical treatments for the terminally ill or those in vegetative states.

France's top administrative court on Tuesday said doctors could withhold food and hydration for Vincent Lambert, saying he had made his wishes clear before the car accident six years ago that left him hospitalized.

That decision was overruled hours later by the European Court of Human Rights in a highly unusual late-night decision. It ordered France to continue treatment until it can examine the case. The court, although based in Strasbourg, has jurisdiction across Europe and member countries are bound by its rulings.

"He is not sick, he is not at the end of his life, he is not suffering," Jean Paillot, a lawyer for Lambert's parents, told BFM television on Wednesday. "From our perspective, there is no reason to stop feeding or hydrating him."

The Lambert case has echoes of the legal fight over Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped, and she entered what doctors refer to as a "persistent vegetative state," or prolonged coma. She died in 2005 after her husband won a protracted court case with Schiavo's parents to have her feeding tube

In Britain, five of the nine judges concluded that the country's ban on assisted suicide is incompatible with the right to private life, suggesting British politicians should amend the law to be in line with the human rights guaranteed under the European Convention.

One of the men, Paul Lamb, is paralyzed following a car accident. The other, Tony Nicklinson, died of pneumonia in 2012, but the case has been taken over by his widow.

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