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As the parents of two year old Alfie Evans battle to save their son’s life in the face of hospital and state rulings to turn off his life support, a hospital in France has ordered the removal of food and water from a 42 year old patient who has been severely disabled for 10 years.

The Sebastopol Hospital in Reims ruled on Monday that ordinary means of life support be removed from patient Vincent Lambert on April 19.

Vincent suffered severe head injuries in an automobile accident in 2008 that left him a quadriplegic, but other doctors and his parents insist he is not sick, nor in a coma, breathes unassisted, and his internal organs function normally.

Despite this, the hospital ruled that continuing to feed and hydrate him constituted “unreasonable obstinacy” towards the disabled patient.

Church teaching allows for the removal of “aggressive medical treatment” but only when it is considered futile or overly burdensome, and for terminally ill patients. Nutrition and hydration are considered “ordinary” and not “extraordinary” means and so are part of normal care; withholding them is therefore considered passive euthanasia, leaving the person to die of starvation.

The decision has been taken against the will of his devout Catholic parents. In the opening words of a letter sent to French President Emmanuel Macron this week, Vincent’s mother, Viviane, wrote “My son has been sentenced to death. His name is Vincent Lambert, he has a little girl, is alive, and has committed no crime.”

“And yet,” she added, “this Monday, April 9, 2018, in France, a doctor announced to me that in 10 days would begin the slow and long agony of my child, who will die of hunger and thirst.”

“Vincent's disabled, but he's alive,” Viviane Lambert continued in her letter.

“Of course, his situation is dramatic. I am his mother: you can imagine how bruised I am and the daily suffering I have to bear. Is that why he should be eliminated?”

She stressed that her son is “not at the end of his life,” nor is he “in pain,” and that 24 specialists sent a letter to the hospital to say Vincent was not in a “situation of “unreasonable obstinacy.”

“When we, his parents, are with him, he has reactions,” Viviane wrote. “He follows us with his eyes, sometimes intensely, also with his brother David who is very close to him.” She also said Vincent has even spoken sometimes in their presence, and submitted recordings to doctors who have affirmed he is “not in a vegetative state.”  

Viviane Lambert further noted that Vincent, one of 1,700 who suffer the same disability in France, should have been given specialized care rather than the palliative care he now receives that fails to offer the proper treatment. And similar to the Alfie Evans case, she said several institutions have offered medical care.

Doctors tried to euthanize Vincent in the spring of 2013 by removing food and water, but were stopped when his parents sued the hospital and won.

But in June 2015, the French Supreme Court and the European Court for Human Rights ruled that Vincent’s feeding tube could be removed without breaching his rights, arguing that continuing to allow him to live artificially could constitute a disproportionate treatment. Four times doctors have tried to prematurely end Vincent’s life.

Over 80,000 people have signed a petition led by the Lejeune Foundation opposing the hospital ruling, and posted a video on the internet showing Vincent moving his head and his eyes. “Watching the video, people realized that Vincent was not dying at all but that he was very handicapped,” a spokesperson for the foundation said.

 

The Church’s Silence

Significant in both the Vincent Lambert and Alfie Evans cases is the unusual silence of Church leaders.

Although the Pope sent a tweet in support of Alfie, there has been no comment from either English and French bishops, nor any recent statements from the Pontifical Academy for Life.

When academy president Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia did comment on the Alfie Evans case in February, he sided with the judge against Alfie’s parents (his comments, given in a newspaper interview, have since been removed).

The general silence is despite representations made by Alfie’s father, Tom Evans, to both the apostolic nuncio in Britain, and Evans' local bishop, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon.

French bishops have also said nothing publicly, despite making comments in defense of Vincent Lambert in the past. The pontifical academy has been approached for comment, but has so far not done so.

In her letter to Macron this week, Viviane Lambert pointed out that on the same day the hospital ruled to end her son’s life, the President spoke about the importance of human dignity in the context of disability and vulnerability in the presence of French bishops.  

Church leaders may be exerting pressure behind the scenes, but in these two high profile cases, their efforts to publicly speak up on behalf of the vulnerable and voiceless have been noticeably lacking, non-existent, or even harmful.  

Writing in the Italian Catholic daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, its director Riccardo Cascioli noted “with sorrow and anxiety that the culture of death has also penetrated deeply into the Church.” 

He said the silence shows “the depth of the crisis” currently passing through the ecclesial world which is “turned towards the prevailing mentality, to the ideology of quality of life.” 

The Church, he added, “is going through a betrayal; a betrayal of God and therefore of man.”

 

Update, April 15:

Pope Francis drew attention to both Alfie Evans and Vincent Lambert during his Regina Caeli address today. The Pope said (my translation):

"I entrust to your prayer people such as Vincent Lambert, in France, the little Alfie Evans, in England, and others in different countries, who live, sometimes for a long time, in a state of serious infirmity, assisted medically for basic needs. These are delicate, very painful and complex situations. We pray that every patient is always respected in his dignity and treated in a way that is appropriate to his condition, and with the agreement of family members, doctors and other health professionals, with great respect for life."

Archbishop Paglia has also issued a statement in support of little Alfie:

"The case of little Alfie Evans of Liverpool, his young parents Tom and Kate and all the people who, in these long and painful months of illness have worked in different ways for the good of this child, has been shown these days in all its terrible tragedy. I pray for him and for the people involved, and I invite everyone to unite with this intention before the Lord of life. I strongly hope that dialogue and cooperation can be reopened between the parents, understandably upset by the pain, and the authorities of the hospital where Alfie has been treated until now, so that together they seek the integral good of Alfie, and that the care of his life is not reduced to a legal dispute. Alfie cannot be abandoned, Alfie must be loved and so also his parents, to the fullest."

UPDATE, April 17:

Cardinal Barbarin yesterday tweeted support for Vincent, saying: "On Sunday, the Pope spoke of Vincent Lambert. Pray for him, for his family and for all those who take care of him. That his life be respected!" 

Meanwhile, the parents of Alfie are spending some quality time with him today while they consider their next legal option after the Court of Appeal yesterday dismissed their appeal to have Alfie flown to Italy for treatment. 

Tom, 21, and Kate, 20, told their 250,000-strong Facebook following they wanted to “focus on spending precious time with Alfie and focus on the next legal step”. 

Alfie's parents have until 4pm today to appeal directly to the UK's Supreme Court. 

Archbishop McMahon has so far not issued a public statement in support of Alfie and his parents, despite pleas from Tom Evans. The bishops' conference of England and Wales has also not commented publicly on the case.

UPDATE, April 18:

A spokesman for Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Register today he “knows nothing” about any forthcoming appeal from the academy in support of Vincent Lambert, who is scheduled to be starved to death by the French state tomorrow.

The spokesman’s comments were made as Archbishop Paglia and representatives of the academy spent a “a day of reflection on bioethics” in France yesterday, with the French bishops' conference.

Archbishop Paglia welcomed the day, the first of its kind, as an “excellent opportunity to be able to respond more directly to what the Church is living in different countries, to listen and to seek together which ways to best respond in an evangelical logic to the delicate issues that emerge today about human life, the promotion of health, the dignity of the person and the common good.”

The French bishops’ conference has also yet to issue any statement on behalf of Vincent.