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Emmanuel Macron wants it both ways on assisted dying

'Once again, Macron’s notorious propensity to support both sides in a debate is coming to the fore.' Credit: Getty

May 27, 2024 - 9:40am

One of the best lines in The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s play about brilliant young students at a Yorkshire grammar school, goes: “Nothing saves anyone’s life — it just postpones their death.”

This logic could easily be adapted to the global debate on euthanasia, particularly in the prosperous West. As science rapidly develops, and lifespans are prolonged thanks to quickly improving medicines and far healthier lifestyles, some feel they should have more control over their own existence.

If they want to end their days prematurely because of chronic illness, it is argued, then nothing should stop them doing so simply and painlessly. The technology to postpone death is readily available, so why not take advantage of techniques that bring it forward, particularly when staying alive is becoming unbearable?

This certainly seems to be the view behind legislation, set to be debated in the French parliament today, that would allow what President Emmanuel Macron calls “assisted dying”. Choosing his words carefully, he said lethal injections, pills or drinks would be made accessible to adults who are “capable of full and complete discernment”, while suffering from incurable diseases.

Macron insists on the expression “help in dying” because it describes a process that is “simple and humane”, he said, but opponents accuse him of reducing the highly contentious debate to semantics. Getting someone to assist with another person’s death is quite obviously a variation of euthanasia, and, indeed, medically assisted suicide.

The arguments are particularly bitter in France, where there is a perennial divide between a fiercely secular, technologically driven state, and a far more traditional country rooted in Roman Catholicism and old-fashioned family values that include looking after someone from cradle to grave, no matter their condition.

A measure introduced eight years ago called the Claeys-Leonetti Law allows for chronically ill patients to receive “deep and continuous sedation”. Those who objected to it described it as permitting legally authorised coma, and suggested it was yet another step on the road to full-blown euthanasia.

Thus the strength of feeling over the latest move. Beyond Christians, as well as Muslim and Jewish faith groups, plenty of members of the medical profession are furious. Associations involved in numerous spheres, including cancer care, published a joint statement in March saying Macron had “with great violence announced a system far removed from patients’ needs and health workers’ daily reality”.

They are particularly upset at the President’s vague reference to a “medical team” that will come to a final decision as to whether a patient is entitled to ending life treatment. The legal complexities of such a process are widespread, as illustrated in Spain, where both euthanasia and assisted dying are technically legal but rarely authorised. The result is a surge in legal cases that invariably last for years and cause a huge amount of stress and anguish for those concerned, while costing millions that might ordinarily be spent on actual medical care.

Once again, Macron’s notorious propensity to support both sides in a debate is coming to the fore. He wants to appease the pro-euthanasia lobby with weak legislation, while bizarrely telling opponents that allowing assisted death will not be a “new law nor a freedom”.

As France approaches European Parliament elections next month, the far-Right Rassemblement National is surging ahead in the polls, and Macron’s centrist Renaissance group is facing a trouncing. There is every indication that Macron is trying to be something to everyone, to impress as many potential voters as possible, however cynically. In matters of life and death, this is seldom a wise strategy.


Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and academic of Algerian descent, and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic.

NabilaRamdani

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
27 days ago

Here are my thoughts on the Assisted Dying debate:
http://grahamstull.com/2024/04/10/assisted-dying-my-thoughts-on-the-subject/

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
27 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Graham, thanks for the link to your post. As is often the case with Unherd, the comments provide greater nuance than the original article.
As someone caring for a terminally ill spouse in a country with virtually no palliative care available, this is an issue I am grappling with every day. Ultimately it is the patient’s wishes that should be respected, but I accept that there are cases where undue influence could be brought to bear to skew that decision. The patient’s faith should also be taken into account so in my view there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
It is a devilishly thorny dilemma for which is not easy to legislate. The UK was about to propose a similar law which has widespread support from MPs, but it looks as though Rishi’s bailout may scupper that.

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

I agree that a person’s faith is relevant, but it is for the person themselves to “take it into account”. If their religious belief says that taking one’s own life is wrong, then they are at liberty to not take their own life. However, those of us without religious belief should not be precluded from doing so.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
26 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

More precisely, those of us without religious belief should not face prosecution for assisting the death of a loved one, when it’s their clearly expressed wish that we should do so (where they’re unable to do so of their own volition).
There are ways and means of ensuring the “expressed wish” is unambiguously their preferred option, not something they’ve been emotionally (or otherwise) induced into accepting. Those who cite “slippery slopes” shouldn’t be allowed to dictate to the sure-footed; the slipperiness is something for them to overcome.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
26 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Thanks Rocky. God bless you and your wife.

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

All very interesting. However, you say “hedonism underpins our culture now” as if it is a bad thing. Like most religious people, you think your religious view is the “right” one, and everyone else is “wrong”. I can say the following with some clarity – I am on this earth to have fun, and I am unencumbered by anything that could be described as “religious belief”. When life stops being fun for me, I am out. If the State won’t assist me, I’ll deal with it myself (I am lucky to live in a place where guns are legal, and I have some). If the religious have a problem with my view, it is their problem, not mine. I should point out that I am 61, so the issue is likely to be real one at some point in the next 20 years.

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
26 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

It’s your life, not the state’s. When writers use expressions like “euthanasia” (which is associated with ending the suffering of our domestic animals) or (assisted) “suicide” (which is often associated with mental illness) they are using words to with a strong stigma. That’s why Macron quite reasonably doesn’t want to advocate or legislate a course of action by stigmatizing it.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Roman

I can’t honestly say the words matter to me, it is the action. To fall back on an old euphemism of British origin, when my life stops being fun, I’m going to top myself.

Aloysius
Aloysius
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Roman

Well euthanasia just means “good death” so the fact that it acquired such a stigma ought to tell you something about the nature of the thing for which you are arguing. Not coincidentally, the word with the most similar construction, eugenics, likewise means “good birth”.

As for Macron’s use of “aid in dying”, this is clearly a ridiculous phrase, regardless of your views on the issue. One can imagine a murder suspect’s defence being that they merely provided the victim with “aid in dying”…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
27 days ago

If they want to end their days prematurely because of chronic illness, it is argued, then nothing should stop them from doing so simply and painlessly. 
And nothing does stop them. People are and always have been free to end their lives should they wish to do so. That’s not the point. The point is having the state be involved in the process. As Canada has so dubiously demonstrated, this is among the slipperiest of slopes.
That country’s MAID law has become so convoluted that people with nothing approaching a chronic illness are being killed – excuse me, allowed to die – mostly because their continued presence offends the state and its budget watchers.

Arthur King
Arthur King
27 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yup. The poor and elderly are being driven towards killing themselves with the help of the state.

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

I take it that you have no problem whatsoever with the poor and the elderly killing themselves without the help of the state?

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
26 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

If the Canadian laws are a problem, don’t copy those. Copy the Australian laws – all the Australian states have Voluntary Assisted Dying laws. Working fine.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago

I haven’t done a direct comparison between the Australian and Canadian laws, but I have never received a satisfactory answer on what is so bad about the Canadian ones (in the interests of full disclosure, I live in Western Australia, where the laws are comparatively new).