France to begin national conversation on assisted suicide laws

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By Euronews  with AFP
FILE: Demonstrators dressed as mime artists hold placards which read "no to the euthanasia of elderly people, solidarity is urgent", in Paris, June 2014
FILE: Demonstrators dressed as mime artists hold placards which read "no to the euthanasia of elderly people, solidarity is urgent", in Paris, June 2014   -   Copyright  AP Photo

France will begin a national conversation this week on whether laws about end of life -- assisted suicide -- should be changed. 

The consultative process involves 150 French people, drawn by lot, who will debate the issue in meetings between now and March, and report their conclusions to the government. 

The aim is to consider whether or not to change the existing law, known as Claeys-Leonetti, which bans euthanasia and assisted suicide. This law -- adopted in 2016 after a first version in 2005 -- allows a "deep and continuous sedation until death" for incurable patients with a "short term" vital prognosis and unbearable suffering.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the citizens' convention at the beginning of the year, after an opinion from the National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE).

The CCNE had, for the first time, considered that "active assistance in dying" could be envisaged, subject to "strict conditions".

This nuanced opinion was not issued unanimously by the Committee's members. However, it marks an unprecedented development for this body, which until now had always ruled out such a possibility.

It will provide a framework for the discussions of the Citizens' Convention.

The participants in the convention, who were drawn by lot and weighted according to age and geographical origin, will be trained in the debate on the end of life and will meet with personalities such as Alain Claeys and Jean Leonetti.

They will also study the legislation of other countries, some of which, such as Belgium and Switzerland, have legalised euthanasia to varying degrees.

But what will the government do with their findings? 

"I can't imagine that there will be no follow-up to the work of the convention," said Thierry Beaudet, president of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, which is organising the discussions.

However, the government has been insisting that the recommendations from the citizens' discussions might only provide food for thought, and not necessary prompt a change in the law. 

"It's never a good idea to debate," but "it's the president of the Republic who will decide," Agnès Firmin Le Bodo, France's minister for the health professions, told journalists in November. 

Macron's intentions seem uncertain. The head of state, who had initially seemed very keen to "move" on the end of life, has recently seemed more reticent. He will not attend the opening of the convention on Friday.

The position of the executive is all the more difficult to grasp as several channels of discussion are open.

Olivier Véran, Minister for Democratic Renewal, and Agnès Firmin le Bodo have engaged in parallel consultations with parliamentarians and healthcare providers about the issue. 

The Ministry of Health said these discussions do not encroach on the role of the Citizens' Convention and aim to reflect on a better organisation of palliative care, among other issues. 

There is also a parliamentary mission to evaluate the existing law which is being lead by a politician who openly supports legalising euthenasia - which is still opposed by the Catholic Church and other religious organisations, and my care givers -- although polls show growing public support for it. 

"The end of life is a subject that requires nuance; we cannot be satisfied with polls," cautioned Thierry Beaudet.