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Ethics briefings
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Danielle Hamm,
  3. Caroline Harrison,
  4. Rebecca Mussell,
  5. Julian Sheather,
  6. Ann Sommerville
  1. BMA Ethics Department: ethics@bma.org.uk

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    Euthanasia debate ripples across Europe

    A debate about physician-assisted suicide dominated the French media during the spring of 2007, ignited by the trial of a French doctor and nurse accused of poisoning a cancer patient in the final stages of her illness.

    The lawsuit against Dr Laurence Tramois and nurse Chantal Chanel, which began on 12 March 2007, was preceded by a manifesto calling for the de-criminalisation of euthanasia, signed by over 2000 health professionals. The manifesto called for an immediate halt to the prosecution of the accused and revision of the law as soon as possible.1 The two leading French presidential candidates at the time of writing, Mme Ségolène Royal and Mr Nicholas Sarkozy, also pledged their support for a revision of the law on euthanasia for the terminally ill.2 As the law currently stands, doctors are permitted to withdraw life-sustaining treatment from the terminally ill under certain circumstances, but are not permitted to actively hasten a patient’s death. Ms Chanel was acquitted on 16 March 2007. Dr Tramois was convicted of murder and given a 1-year suspended jail sentence.

    The debate around the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment also received widespread attention in Italy early in 2007, following the death in December 2006 of Piergiorgio Welby, a 60-year-old patient in the final stage of muscular dystrophy. Mr Welby was helped to die by Dr Mario Riccio, who, at his request, switched off Mr Welby’s ventilator. The matter was investigated but Dr Riccio was not prosecuted.3 The case, however, was divisive in the predominantly Catholic country, and Mr Welby was refused a Catholic funeral on the basis that he had gone against Catholic teachings through expressing a wish to die.

    In the UK, the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment is legal if it is made at the request of a competent patient, is …

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      BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and Institute of Medical Ethics