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France ‘En marche’ Towards Euthanasia by Hélène de Lauzun

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France ‘En marche’ Towards Euthanasia

For several months, well before his re-election, Emmanuel Macron had been testing the waters in favour of euthanasia. It was clear that this ‘societal advance’ would be on the agenda of his second five-year term. Unsurprisingly, the National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE), a regulatory body designed to give its opinion on bioethical reforms, gave the green light on Tuesday, September 13th, to change French law in favour of “active assistance in dying.” 

The committee is an independent administrative authority, intended to guide the public debate on bioethical issues. Created by President François Mitterrand in 1983, shortly after the birth of the first test-tube baby in France, its mission is to “give opinions on the ethical problems and social issues raised by the progress of knowledge in the fields of biology, medicine and health.” It notably has had to give its opinion on medically assisted procreation and on research on the human embryo. 

The CCNE brings together experts from the world of research and those who are supposed to represent “philosophical and spiritual families.” Since 2013 no religious person sits on it—in order not to “engage religions in the debate.” For several years, the CCNE has been accused by the Right and by religious authorities of being composed of members ostensibly favourable to the devilry behind ‘societal progress.’ Indeed, the opinions issued by the Council are systematically favourable to bioethical reforms; their safeguards against moral atrocity are mostly symbolic.

In 2018, the CCNE was in favour of the use of Medically Assisted Procreation for female couples. Recently, the CCNE came out in favour of extending the time limit for abortion from 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy, seeing ”no ethical objection,” even though many health professionals had sounded the alarm about the dangers of such an extension: difficulty for doctors to carry out an act that is more harmful when performed at this stage, bearing greater risk for the mother. 

Today, the CCNE has once again been called upon to serve France, to deliberate the place of euthanasia. While a new law on the end of life will certainly be debated in the French National Assembly, the CCNE has given a generally positive opinion, even if eight out of 50 of its members have expressed reservations. The committee’s “Avis 139” states that “there is a way for an ethical application of active assistance in dying, under certain strict conditions with which it appears unacceptable to compromise.” The so-called “strict conditions” can only leave one sceptical. This is a well-known rhetorical device to make the unacceptable acceptable. In 1974, abortion was supposed to be a tolerated exception, reserved for serious cases. In France today, there are more than 200,000 abortions every year. In countries that have legalised euthanasia, exceptional situations have become legion

Following the publication of this opinion, Emmanuel Macron confirmed his intention to legislate on the subject, following a “citizens’ consultation.” The formula is vague and not very reassuring. During his previous five-year term, he had put forward, with extensive publicity, the Etats-généraux de la bioéthique intended to open the debate on Medical Assisted Procreation (MAP) for women. The discussions were literally confiscated and organised in such a way as to deliver a monolithic discourse along progressive lines. It is likely that the scenario will be repeated again this time. To “open the debate” is already to give it an outcome known to all. As a parliamentary aide quoted by Jean-Rémi Baudot, a political columnist on France info, cynically put it: “Only the Catholics will try to kill the thing.” In other words, nobody.

The way is already paved for the worst to come. The CCNE specifies that “we can open the subject to adults by making a distinction between adults and minors.” The unspoken implication is easy to hear: sooner or later we will consider euthanasia for minors. It is only a matter of time, precisely what happened in Belgium—Emmanuel Macron’s inspiration—which he made clear during the presidential campaign: “I am in favour of moving towards the Belgian model.”

The reservations of the eight members have clearly identified the inevitable drifts involved in authorising access to euthanasia. What message would such a legislative development send to the seriously ill, disabled, or elderly people? Would it not be perceived as a sign that some lives are not worth living? We are concerned that this law will create a form of guilt or even a life complex for people already suffering from social exclusion. Their concerns are the matter of common sense. But it is difficult to expect a society that already advocates the elimination of the disabled before birth to be bothered with such moral scruples. 

Tugdual Derville, spokesman for the pro-life association Alliance Vita, points out the blatant contradictions of the CCNE. “The drafters of the text are trying to reconcile the irreconcilable,” he said in a statement, highlighting both the importance of palliative care and the possibility of implementing active assistance in dying in the name of the sacrosanct “freedom of self-determination.” The two are fundamentally antinomic. The thorough practice of palliative care, which allows the soul and body of the patient trapped in the despair of suffering to be soothed, generally removes any desire for euthanasia. All the carers involved in this noble struggle can confirm this. 

The opinion of the CCNE is only the umpteenth avatar of the Macronian ‘at the same time,’ which denies this cruel reality: most often, active assistance in dying is not a matter of “freedom of self-determination,” but of moral suffering coupled with social pressure, a fear of imposing oneself, or of depleting the financial resources of loved ones and society. 

It is a sinister coincidence of the political calendar—but is it a pure coincidence?—that the debate on euthanasia is resurfacing at the same time as pension reform is also being discussed. The connection between the two issues is easy to establish: an elderly person is expensive. 

You see what I mean.

The defenders of human dignity are clenching their teeth at the implacable scenario unfolding before their eyes. It is written, euthanasia will pass. For the moment, the vast majority of the political class is silent on the matter.

Mgr. Pierre d’Ornellas, archbishop of Rennes and head of the bioethics working group of the French Bishops’ Conference, has responded to the CCNE’s opinion with a cry of alarm. He accuses it of casting a “fog” over the debate and refusing to build a society of fraternity. The founding prohibition of our Christian society, “thou shalt not kill,” is thrown into oblivion, and drowned in circumlocutions dripping with untenable beautiful thoughts. The good bishop speaks true, however, one would like to read stronger and more offensive words from his pen. One must raise one’s voice, but in a clear, intelligible, powerful way, which his well-intended letter does not do.

The French agnostic author, Michel Houellebecq, in his sharp and bitter style, is perhaps the one who has best summed up the forthcoming debate: “a civilisation that legalises euthanasia loses all right to respect.”

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).