Romantic suicide fever has gripped the French media in the past week after an 86-year-old couple, described as brilliant intellectuals, ended their lives together last Friday. Three days later, a second Parisian couple, aged 84 and 81, were found dead in their apartment in the city’s upmarket 7th district.
France is a country of contradictions when it comes to the question of assisted suicide and euthanasia, with a massive 92% of the population supporting legal change for it. Yet this is the country that has also tried to ban books on rational suicide, including its own historic volume, Le droit à la mort : Suicide, mode d’emploi (“The right to death: Suicide, user manual”). Propaganda or advertising for products, objects or methods advocated as a means of committing suicide, though rarely enforced, is punishable by three years’ imprisonment and a 45,000 euro fine.
Yet although anything resembling euthanasia is horriblement illégal, the current French socialist president, François Hollande, made changing the law one of his 2012 election campaign pledges.
The story surrounding the 86-year-old couple adds enormous fuel to fire. They died holding hands at Lutetia, one of Paris’ most romantic hotels on the Left Bank, and once a favourite haunt of Pablo Picasso, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, who loved its romantic setting and architecture.
Friends and family of Bernard and Georgette Cazes, said there was no doubt the pair were still very much in love after more than 60 years of marriage; and in the name of that loving unity, they decided to end their lives together at a time and place of their choosing. A member of staff walked in with the breakfast tray to find the pair hand in hand on their bed with plastic bags over their faces. A letter was also found, in which Georgette vented her fury at not being able to enjoy a more dignified, comfortable departure.
“The law forbids access to any lethal pills that would enable a soft death,” the typed note said. “Should my freedom be only limited by that of others?
They had been active until recently; Mr Cazes was an eminent economist-philosopher and author of a series of books including The History of Futures, which charted how the future was predicted throughout the ages. His wife was an author and Classics teacher, and later a volunteer social worker.
Georgette and Bernard, from the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, had asked staff to bring them breakfast in bed, ensuring their bodies would be found quickly. All their affairs were in order, including documents containing their final wishes. When found, the couple’s room was perfectly made up, just as they had found it when checking in. Mrs Casez had first visited the hotel in the 1940s when she met her father there when he was released from a prison camp after the Second World War.
It would appear they died peacefully. The second couple also managed a gentle death, but using prescription drugs. Most rational suicides in France are not so lucky. With the restrictions on literature, most persons seeking an end to intolerable and violent means, which also traumatises relatives who find the body.
Since the Middle Ages, Western society has used first canon law and later criminal law to combat suicide. Changes in the legal status of suicide, however, have had little influence on the suicide rate. Beginning after the French Revolution of 1789, criminal penalties for attempting suicide were abolished in European countries; England was the last to follow suit, in 1961. But many of those countries and numerous U.S. states also adopted laws against helping someone to commit suicide.
A French physician, called Dr.E.Forgue. published an article, named “Easy death of incurable patients” in La Revue de Paris, in 1925, and pointed out that killing an incurable patient wasn’t a legal condition. But, Liege Bar said that killing an incurable patient with his free consent had to be forgiven.
The 2005 Leonetti End-of-Life Act, was a significant turning point. This Act was voted into law as a response in part to public outcry over cases like that of Vincent Humbert, a young man suffering post-traumatic locked-in syndrome. He voiced his desire to “die legally” but his appeal was denied, and his mother assisted in killing him by injecting him with an overdose of barbiturates that put him into a coma, killing him 2 days later. Although she was arrested for aiding in her son’s death and later acquitted, the case jumpstart the new legislation which states that when medicine serves “no other purpose than the artificial support of life” it can be “suspended or not undertaken”.
It covered the sort of ground of refusal of treatment and and advance directives now common in many other countries. Although a legal landmark, many people involved in end of life situations claim that the approach used in hospitals has not really changed since the introduction of the law. Many people want to see the law extended to cover physician assisted suicide and also ensure measures to upgrade the country’s palliative care procedures.
Last year, award winning director Michael Haneke’s film Amour tackled elderly assisted suicide and picked up a swathe of prestigious awards at the Cannes Film Festival. This year, President Francois Hollande said that France should hold a national debate on the issue and stated his intention to introduce a bill to parliament before the end of the year. Opinion polls in France show that the majority of the public are in favour of an assisted suicide law, but so far France’s national ethics committee has advised against any change in the law.
I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store. That makes me happy, often now my murmur falters and dies and I weep for happiness as I go along and for love of this old earth
that has carried me so long and whose uncomplainingness will soon be mine. Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first, then separate, and drift through all the earth and perhaps in the end through a cliff into the sea, something of me.
A ton of worms in an acre, that is a wonderful thought,
a ton of worms, I believe it.
— Samuel Beckett
French law on assisted suicide (in French: use Google translate for an English version)
Ethics review: End of life legislation – the French model (medical journal article)
Euthanasia, assisted suicide and palliative care (review by the Ethics Committee of the French Society of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care
Acceptability for French people of physician-assisted suicide (abstract of article)
French hospital nurses’ opinion about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (phone survey)
A report in The Telegraph newspaper