Facts emerge over euthanasia cause celebre in France

The suicide of Chantal Sébire, a retired 53-year-old French teacher with three children, has created a tsunami of sympathy for euthanasia in France. Ms Sébire suffered from esthesioneuroblastoma, a rare and terribly disfiguring cancer of the sinuses. Her photo on the internet is almost too painful to look at -– she became like one of the more grotesque orcs in the film of The Lord of the Rings.

In February Ms Sébire made a public appeal to the French president to allow her to die through euthanasia. She stated that "One would not allow an animal to go through what I have endured." A tumultuous public debate ensued, but the courts refused her request on March 17. On March 19 she killed herself with a huge dose of the lethal drug pentobarbital.

In the wake of her suicide, a Paris Match poll indicated that 91% of French would support legislation, at least to some degree, to allow doctor-assisted suicide. Only 3% were "completely against" the idea. France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, a former doctor, and other senior politicians said that they favoured a legal right to euthanasia in certain cases. It was wrong, Kouchner said, that she had to kill herself "in a clandestine way, which would cause suffering to everyone, especially her loved ones".

However, it turns out that the public was ignorant of the circumstances of Ms Sébire’s case. The suffering she endured, it seems, may have been self-inflicted. French specialists told her that surgery offered a 70% chance of success, although there was a risk of death or incapacity. However, she firmly refused any surgery, drugs or pain relief. She told Dr Jean-Louis Béal, a palliative care specialist in Dijon, that "drugs are chemicals, chemicals are poison, and I won’t make matters worse by poisoning myself."


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