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Tragic cancer death reopens euthanasia debate
John Lichfield in Paris

The ethical debate over euthanasia in Europe was reignited this week by the unexplained death of a Frenchwoman whose face had been hideously and painfully deformed by a rare tumour of the sinuses.

Chantal Sebire, 52, a former teacher, had won the admiration and compassion of France for her dignified and courageous appeals to be allowed to die surrounded by her family. She was found dead at her home near Dijon, in Burgundy, on Wednesday hours after her doctor spoke to senior aides of President Nicolas Sarkozy at the ElysEe Palace.

After initial examination of her body and questioning of her family by police, the cause of her death was said to be unclear. The local public prosecutor was awaiting instructions from Paris before deciding whether to order a post-mortem.

Mme Sebire’s lawyer, MaOtre Gilles Antonowicz, said an autopsy would be a “shameful act”. He had appealed unsuccessfully to a court in Dijon earlier in the week for a doctor to be allowed to end her life.

Mme Sebire, who had three children, suffered from a rare, incurable and excruciatingly painful tumour of the sinuses which made her nose and eyelids swell to several times their normal size. She had said she was “fiercely opposed” to suicide but wanted to “die partying surrounded by my children, friends and doctors before falling asleep for good at dawn.”

Just before her death, President Sarkozy ordered a study of possible amendments to a French law, passed three years ago, which lays down ethical guidelines for the “end of life”. Several senior politicians, including the Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, a former doctor, said they favoured a legal right to euthanasia in extreme and rare cases, such as that of Mme Sebire.

Mr Kouchner said it was wrong that someone like Mme Sebire should be obliged by law to “commit suicide in a clandestine way, which would cause suffering to everyone, especially her loved ones”.

The debate was given a European dimension yesterday by the revelation by a Belgian doctor that he had invited Mme Sebire to come to his hospital in Ghent to end her life. Professor Pete Hoebeke, revealed that “five foreigners in great suffering” had travelled to Belgium in the past six years to take advantage of the EU rules which permit patients to seek medical care in another member state, if similar treatment is not available at home. In extreme cases, such as that of Mme Sebire, euthanasia should be considered a “form of therapy”, he said.

Three EU countries — Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — and one non-EU European country, Switzerland, already have laws permitting doctors to end the lives of incurable patients suffering intense agony. Professor Hoeboke’s comments raise the possibility of a growth in “euthanasia tourism” in Europe unless national laws are brought gradually into line.

(By arrangement with The Independent)



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