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France reopens euthanasia debate with right-to-die ruling

By Chine Labbé and Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - France's top administrative court ruled on Tuesday that doctors should be allowed to take a tetraplegic man off life support after nearly six years in a coma, siding with his wife in a case that has revived a debate about euthanasia.

The Council of State ruled that doctors had the right to end the medical support that has kept Vincent Lambert, brain-damaged and in vegetative state, artificially alive since a motorbike accident on the way to work plunged him into a coma in September 2008.

The verdict follows a heart-rending battle between Lambert's wife Rachel, seeking to let the former psychiatric nurse die, and his parents, who took legal action last year to halt plans by his doctors to do that.

Apart from places such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide - sometimes known as mercy killings.

But France, where President Francois Hollande promised prior to his 2012 election to introduce new right-to-die legislation, has left grey areas regarding more passive forms of euthanasia in a 2005 law on patient rights and care for the terminally ill.

The so-called Leonetti law does not legalize euthanasia but also states, according to government information services, that patient treatment should not involve "excessive obstination".

Lambert's parents, devoutly religious Catholics, said even before the Council of State's Tuesday ruling that they had asked the European Court of Human Rights to issue an emergency ruling on the case should the French judges go against their will to keep their son, now in his late 30s, as he is.

The international rights court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, said in a statement it would respond "as soon as possible".

While Hollande has yet to deliver on his promise of legislation by the end of the year on the rights of the incurably ill, the legal battles over Lambert's fate and other cases has thrust the euthanasia debate firmly back onto the radar screen.

As many as 25,000 people die a year in France after removal of medical support, according to Remi Keller, a member of the Council of State.

In a separate case, a hospital doctor in southwest France is on trial on charges that he used lethal injections to hasten the deaths of seven old-aged people in 2010-2011. His lawyers say they intend to turn that trial into a debate about the wider issue of the boundaries of euthanasia.

(Writing by Brian Love; editing by Dominique Vidalon and John Irish)

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