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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Deux femmes devant la justice pour avoir « donné la mort »

by Sophie Bouniot

Euthanasia: Two Women Face Charges of “Giving Death”

Translated Friday 30 March 2007, by Carol Gullidge

A French doctor has received a one-year suspended prison sentence in a case that has prompted candidates in the presidential race – including Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Bayrou – to declare their support for some form of euthanasia.

The case brings back memories of Marie Humbert, who, in September 2003, said she wanted to give her son "the gift of death, having given him life". Twenty-one year old Vincent Humbert, who was left tetraplegic, blind and mute following a traffic accident, had pleaded with President Chirac to be granted the right to die.

Euthanasia: Doctor Laurence Tramois and nurse Chantal Chanel appeared before the Dordogne cour d’assises (French equivalent to a UK Crown court) on 12 March, accused of ending the life of a terminally ill patient.

For nurse Chantal Chanel, this was an act of “humanity”; and for Doctor Laurence Tramois, “an act reflecting the doctor’s responsibility”. But, in the eyes of the law, it is a matter of “murder by poisoning” punishable with thirty years imprisonment. The case of these two women accused of having helped Paulette Druais to die, on 25 August 2003, was opened in Perigueux on the morning of 12 March 2007.

At the Saint-Astier Hospital, Chantal Chanel administered a lethal injection of potassium, prescribed by Dr Laurence Tramois, to this 65-year-old patient in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Paulette Druais had entered the “Embellie” palliative care unit three weeks earlier, and had insisted on being treated by Dr Tramois. And for a very good reason. The latter is the older sister of her daughter-in-law, Sophie, who works as a nursing auxilliary in the same establishment. The three women were extremely fond of one another.

A situation that, in the eyes of the prosecution, prompted this case of positive euthanasia: “The professional judgements and reasoning of both the doctor and the nurse were clouded by the emotional context and the relationships surrounding the Paulette Druais case.” When Chantal Chanel entered the patient’s room on the night of 25 August, Paulette had been in a semi-coma for two days. Not that this brought her any relief from her suffering. Her internal organs ravaged by intestinal occlusions, the poor woman was vomiting her stools. Paulette herself had pleaded for “the next world”. The nurse received written instructions that were perfectly clear to her. First of all to increase the morphine dose, then to inject 7 grams of potassium into a drip. The injection is lethal and illegal. Chantal Chanel admitted to the police that she had “waited in vain for Dr Tramois”, who should have been present, but who never appeared. She also explained that she was convinced that the family “was informed of the situation”. This is substantiated by the fact that scarcely had the flow of the drip been regulated than Sophie Tramois, the patient’s daughter-in-law, arrived at Paulette’s bedside. The auxilliary nurse was to remain with her until her dying breath.

The right to “die with dignity”

However, the facts of the matter were rather different. Laurence Tramois admitted having taken the decision alone. It was not until two weeks later, following the exposure of these facts within the hospital – which went on to refer the matter to the police – that the doctor was to reveal the truth to the family. In a state of shock, the patient’s husband said: “It’s murder, and I don’t want to be an accomplice.” But the family very soon joined forces with the defendants: nobody has filed a private prosecution. Laurence Tramois justified her actions to the police: “This suffering no longer made any sense,” while refraining from claiming to be “pro-euthanasia”: “If Paulette hadn’t been Paulette, I would never have prescribed the potassium,” and the doctor stressed that she felt unable to carry out this act herself.

A sentiment that, in fact, dragged Chantal Chanel along with her into the witness box. However, solidarity is the order of the day. A solidarity driven by the certainty of having allowed the old lady to “die with dignity”, of having relieved her suffering and shortened her life by only a few hours. In fact, the examination of the medical records confirmed the desperate plight of Paulette Druais, whose prognosis was in any case very bleak and very short-lived. “The two are a united front”, commented Maître Pierre-Olivier Sur, the barrister for the nurse, who expected an acquittal.

Support for the accused

The announcement that the doctor and nurse were being sent for trial at the cour d’assises had arisen at the height of the public debate on the Vincent Humbert affair, which inspired the Loi Leonetti - the law establishing the right to “allow to die”. The previous Thursday, 2,000 medical professionals published a manifesto in the Nouvel Observateur in favour of the decriminalization of euthanasia, claiming to have helped patients to die, and declaring their support for the accused women. The very next day, the French palliative care organization – la Société française d’accompagnement et de soins palliatifs (SFAP) – launched a manifesto on the Internet against “the legalization of euthanasia”. The following Saturday, thirteen medical and literary figures had demanded that the case be postponed until after the electoral campaigns, complaining of “biased pressure” from pro-euthanasia groups and the exploitation of the trial. The debate is set to rage on beyond the doors of the courtroom.

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