While the world’s attention was fixed on the case of little Alfie Evans last month, the similar case of severely disabled Frenchman Vincent Lambert also made headlines but retreated from public view when efforts to save Alfie took centerstage. 

But whereas the parents of little Alfie lost their battle to save him, for Vincent Lambert the news is hopeful after a French court upheld his parents’ urgent appeal against his doctor’s ruling that his life support be withdrawn on April 19. 

On April 20, the Administrative Court of Chalons-en-Champagne ruled instead that a panel of three medical experts should examine Vincent’s case, and were given one month to submit their report. The doctors are assessing in particular whether his health has evolved since the French Supreme Court last examined his case in 2014. 

A new court hearing will then take place to either “confirm” or “cancel” the hospital’s decision to stop treatment. 

Vincent suffered severe head injuries from a 2008 car accident that left him a quadriplegic. The Sebastopol Hospital in Reims ordered the removal of food and water on April 9, giving him 10 days before switching off his life support. 

Despite other doctors and his parents insisting Vincent is not sick nor in a coma, breathes unassisted, and his internal organs function normally, the hospital ruled that continuing to feed and hydrate him constituted “unreasonable obstinacy” towards the disabled patient whom they consider to have irreversible brain damage and whose condition has deteriorated, they say.

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.

Vincent’s devout Catholic parents forcefully appealed against the hospital’s decision. His mother, Viviane, wrote to French President Emmanuel Macron soon after the April 9 ruling, stressing that her son was “not at the end of his life,” nor was he “in pain.” The Frenchman’s mother, who will be taking part in Italy’s March for Life in Rome on May 19, drew attention to the fact that 24 specialists had written to the hospital to say Vincent was not in a “situation of unreasonable obstinacy.”

On April 15, Pope Francis called on the authorities to respect Vincent’s dignity and to treat him “in a way that is appropriate for his condition, and with the agreement of family members, doctors and other health professionals, with great respect for life.” 

France’s bishops were largely silent, although Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon tweeted his support for Vincent on April 17, calling on all who care for him to respect his life.  

In an article in Le Figaro published around the time of the April 20 ruling, 70 health professionals wrote in support of Vincent, asking that he be transferred to a specialized unit, and denouncing euthanasia “which dares not say its name.” 

The Lejeune Foundation, which drew up a petition that has attracted almost 100,000 signatures, and other supporters of Vincent have welcomed the court decision to appoint three experts, also because the majority of the experts caring for people like Vincent signed the article in Le Figaro.

They also see it as a major blow against Dr. Vincent Sanchez, Vincent’s doctor, who had issued the April 9 ruling, as it takes away the doctor’s power to make such a judgment. 

Doctors first 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 with artificial support could constitute a disproportionate treatment. Four times doctors have tried to prematurely end Vincent’s life.

Maitre Paillot, Vincent’s lawyer, cautioned that the April 20 court decision is “not a final victory” because “everything will depend” on what the experts conclude. The April 20 ruling also rejected a request that Vincent be transferred to another health facility, but Paillot said it was nevertheless “a first and great victory.”