Vincent Lambert and the ‘Brain Death’ Debate
While the severely disabled Frenchman’s life support was turned back on yesterday after a court intervention, his life remains in peril.
ROME — Vincent Lambert’s life remains precarious despite the severely disabled Frenchman having his life support switched off and then turned back on yesterday after a court intervention.
Lambert, 42, has been a tetraplegic for more than 10 years after injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, but on May 20, a hospital in Reims began removing Vincent’s feeding and hydration tubes — until a Paris court of appeal ordered a delay in ending life support.
The court ruled that a United Nations-affiliated ad hoc committee on disability needed more time to review the case.
The news followed vocal support from the Vatican and the French bishops for Vincent and particularly his Catholic parents, who have fought hard against numerous attempts over the past decade to euthanize their son.
But although campaigners welcome what they see as a miraculous eleventh-hour intervention, they are warning that Vincent’s life remains in danger until the UN committee releases the results of its review, which could take six months or more.
One source close to the case told the Register that the pro-euthanasia lobby is strong in France and “power games” remain at play, but the expectation is that the committee’s findings will conclude in Vincent’s favor.
Until the committee says “'Vincent must live,' there is always a risk,” the source said.
The goal now is to move him to a disability center caring for others in a similar condition. Vincent will then be out of what some have termed “a prison death” hospital in Reims and the jurisdiction of his doctor, Vincent Sanchez, who tried several times to have him legally euthanized.
The parents of Vincent Lambert and other supporters, including doctors, have insisted that he breathes unassisted, his internal organs function normally and that he is not sick or in a coma. Vincent showed clear signs of life in a video of his family visiting him on May 20.
In cases involving terminally ill patients, Church teaching allows for the removal of “aggressive medical treatment,” but only when it is considered futile or overly burdensome. 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.
“To nourish a sick person never constitutes a form of unreasonable therapeutic obstinacy, as long as the person is able to receive nutrition and hydration, provided this does not cause intolerable suffering or prove damaging to the patient,” said Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in a joint May 21 statement on Vincent’s case.
They added that the suspension of such care represents “abandonment of the patient, based on a pitiless judgment of the quality of life, expression of a throwaway culture that selects the most fragile and helpless people, without recognizing their uniqueness and immense value. The continuity of assistance is an inescapable duty.”
They therefore expressed the hope “that solutions may be found as soon as possible to protect Mr. Lambert’s life. To this end, we assure the prayer of the Holy Father and all the Church.”
Christine Vollmer, president of Alliance for the Family and a former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Register May 21 that the level of Vincent’s consciousness was not known, “but it was sufficient for him to understand he was being killed and going to be killed slowly and painfully, and the only comfort was that his parents were by his side.”
She, too, saw the decision as a miracle and said that “just as we were thinking civilization in France was going backwards and we were going back towards barbarism, including torture and killing people that are considered useless, suddenly there’s this reprieve through the French legal system.
“That’s very, very good news,” she said.
‘Brain Death’ and Organ Donation
Vollmer was attending a two-day conference in Rome on “Brain Death” during which various speakers argued it is immoral and against the natural law to end a life on account of “brain death” — a concept dating back to the 1968 “Harvard Report” that posited the moment of death as the total cessation of brain activity rather than the stoppage of the heart.
The conference, organized by the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family, also heard how the condition is in some cases being used as “euthanasia through the back door” in order to harvest a person’s organs.
Not only the wish to save other lives, but financial rewards and utilitarian reasons are often thought to be key underlying drivers for organ donation which, from 2020 in England, will be automatic under the term “presumed consent” unless a person chooses to opt out.
Attending the conference, Peter D. Williams, executive consultant of Right to Life, a U.K. pro-life advocacy group, told the Register that he thinks a “suspicious number of people” in Belgium have already been “basically euthanized and then wheeled into the next theater and their organs harvested” (he highlighted a study here).
He added that what is being suggested to them is, “You’ve had a good inning so why don’t we do one last good thing by harvesting your organs and helping other people?”
The pressure is becoming particularly great on younger people, according to Austrian Cistercian theologian, Father Edmund Waldstein. “If they’re an old person, their organs aren’t any use to anyone,” he said. “But if a young man comes into the hospital with a brain injury, there’s huge pressure on the neurologist to declare him ‘brain dead.’”
But to Father Waldstein, “brain death” is not equivalent to death, and so to euthanize anyone whose brain is no longer functioning would be directly killing them and therefore contrary to the natural law.
Debate persists, however, among Catholic moral theologians and philosophers over what constitutes ‘brain death’ and whether or not a person suffering from the injury is, in fact, dead. This has partly been due to ambiguous pronouncements on the issue from the hierarchy, from Pius XII on.
A key speech by Pope St. John Paul II on organ transplantation in 2000 is seen as furthering the ambiguity. (He said “irreversible cessation of all brain activity” can be used to ascertain death on a case-by-case basis.) In recent years, the former women’s editor at L’Osservatore Romano, Lucetta Scaraffia, and Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, have brought further imprecision to the issue.
But in her talk at the May 21 conference, moral theologian Dr. Doyen Nguyen, of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, noted that the “Magisterium has not made any definitive pronouncement on ‘brain death’” and argued that John Paul’s address needs to be “seriously amended,” as it overlooks key philosophical principles and medical, scientific and bioethical literature.
Professor Josef Seifert, president of the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and Family, insisted it cannot be argued that, because a person’s brain no longer functions, they are no longer a living person with a soul. Such a view, he said, contradicts the “essential unity of body, soul, and human life.”
He posited that the criterion of “brain death” must be “dismissed as an aberrant definition of death” and that, for him, death has occurred only when there is a “complete and irreversibly cessation of all central vital functions,” a so-called “clinical death.”
Seifert further argued that any lack of certainty over whether a person is clinically dead or not would, in itself, make it “morally wrong to kill him.”
Hence, for this reason, he believes it is “at least ‘unsafe’ to take the organs from a person who is ‘brain-dead’ but otherwise a biologically living being.”
It is perhaps also worth noting by way of contrast that French doctors — even Vincent’s own practitioner, who wants his life support turned off — do not consider him to be suffering from “brain death” but rather severe brain damage.
This article has been updated to include amendments and additions related to comments from Peter D. Williams.