French disfigured woman found dead

March 20, 2008 7:16:06 AM PDT
A French woman, suffering from a rare cancer, whose request to be allowed to die by euthanasia was turned down by a French court, was found dead today in her apartment in eastern France, Dijon's prosecutor announced. Chantal S?bire, 52, a teacher and mother of three, suffered from esthesioneuroblastoma, an incurable tumor attacking her nose and sinuses. It left her disfigured, blind, without the sense of smell or taste and in terrible pain.

Only about 1,000 cases of the rare cancer S?bire suffered from have been reported worldwide in the last 20 years.

"Ms. S?bire was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m. local time. The cause of death is unknown. We're going to take samples and run some tests and we should know more by Thursday," Dijon public prosecutor Jean-Pierre Allachi said in front of S?bire's apartment in Plombi?res-les-Dijon.

Before the discovery of Sebire's death today, French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris with her doctor, Emmanuel Debost.

S?bire had written Sarkozy a couple of weeks ago, pleading for his help to allow her to die with dignity. In response, Sarkozy said he would ask a group of experts for a new opinion on her condition.

Following the meeting today, during which S?bire's condition was discussed with a team of experts, Sarkozy released a statement saying he was "particularly touched by the suffering of Ms. S?bire and of her family, as well as by the call for help he had received."

The French prime minister's office also asked Jean Leonetti, the French lawmaker who put together the 2005 law widely known as "passive euthanasia" ? which allows doctors to withhold treatment with a terminally ill patient's consent in certain circumstances ? to evaluate the law to eventually remedy its weaknesses.

In a rare move, two government members pleaded today in favor of active euthanasia in Sebire's case.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a doctor, asked for an exception to allow her not to commit suicide, "in a sort of secret that would have made everybody suffer, in particular her family."

Nadine Morano, who was just named secretary of state for family, said she was in favor of euthanasia.

Active euthanasia, the act of taking steps to facilitate a person's death, is illegal in France.

In a request she filed in court in the eastern city of Dijon, S?bire cited "intense and permanent suffering" and the "incurable character of the disease she is suffering from," as reasons for "her refusal to have to support the irreversible degradation of her state."

But the court ruled that S?bire could not have a doctor help her die because it would breach medical ethics and French law, under which assisted suicide is a crime.

S?bire's lawyer Gilles Antonowicz denounced the decision as "total hypocrisy" and called on Sarkozy to change the law.

"Our law is inhuman. The law must be changed because we see that people are left on the side of the road," Antonowicz said at a news conference Monday in Paris. Following the court's decision, he spoke briefly with his client, who, he said, was "extremely tired."

Of Death and Dignity

S?bire's case received widespread news coverage and renewed the euthanasia debate in France.

Many think the 2005 law is insufficient. Last year, more that 2,000 doctors and nurses signed a petition saying they had helped patients to die with dignity, asserting that the law "is still repressive and unfair as ever as it is not in sync with medical reality."

Active euthanasia is decriminalized in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. There have been several cases of active euthanasia involving foreign nationals in these countries over the years.

"This court decision inflicts on Chantal S?bire a sentence of suffering for life," Jean-Luc Romero, president of the Association for the Right to Die with Dignity, an organization that regroups 40,000 people in France, told ABC News on Monday.

But several government members reacted over this case. Prime Minister Fran?ois Fillon told RTL radio last week that "the difficulty for me in this case is that we are at the limit of what society can say, of what the law can do. I think one must have the modesty to recognize that society cannot answer all these questions."

French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot told the same radio station that "neither the medical world nor the authorities can promote active euthanasia, whatever the gravity of the illness."

And Archbishop of Lyon Philippe Barbarin on Monday told the French newspaper Aujourd'hui en France that "one must never make legislation in the grip of emotion. No one has the right to give death."

Many in Public Disagree

But on the streets of France, the public had a different reaction from that of the government officials.

"I think euthanasia should be legalized in certain circumstances. It must not be abused. It has to be within a strict law frame," Charlotte Leblanc, a student from Levallois, told ABC News.

"I think everybody has the right to die with dignity," said Delphine Steinberg of Paris. "France is rather behind on many things. But it could change, with this kind of case."

Romero was hopeful public outcry over S?bire's fight could serve to sway lawmakers.

"Chantal's fight moves the French public opinion, and when we see the reactions on [the] Internet, we see that there is something strong happening. Maybe that French lawmakers will start a real debate, will listen to what people are saying, and will vote a law. It's time to end the hypocrisy," Romero said.

Law No Barrier

On Friday, in a telephone interview on French TV, S?bire said she would not appeal the court's decision if she was turned down, after the general prosecutor declared her request "inadmissible." She also confirmed that she was ready to go to a foreign country to obtain what she wanted.

"I know now how to obtain what I need [to die], and if I cannot obtain it in France, I will obtain it elsewhere," she told France 5, adding that if she did not get the right to die by euthanasia, she "will not go in peace."

"It is unfortunate in 2008 to have to leave [the country] as a thief to go die in a foreign country," her lawyer Antonowicz said.

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