Health Minister to Push for Euthanasia Law


April 16, 2001; Paris, France

France's straight-talking health minister plans to press for the legalization of euthanasia after favorable opinion polls in France and a vote last week made the Netherlands the first country to openly endorse mercy killing.

Bernard Kouchner, health minister and a doctor himself, said in comments published on Monday that he would open a debate and visit the Netherlands to glean information on the controversial Dutch response to the plight of the incurably ill.

"There's an unquestionable change in French public opinion. We have to adapt and try to behave in a more humane manner in cases of such difficulty," he was quoted as telling Le Monde.

"It's time to debate the issue openly, without arrogance, preconceived ideas or ideological rhetoric," he said.

A survey published on Sunday showed 38 percent of the French were absolutely in favour of euthanasia in cases of unbearable suffering or terminal disease, and that another 50 percent would allow doctors bring life to an end in certain cases.

Only 10 percent were opposed and just two percent declined to state a view, according to the Ifop agency which questioned 950 adults on April 12 and 13. Kouchner seized on the poll as a "fabulous breakthrough for our society".

The minister conceded in an interview in Sunday's Journal du Dimanche that the final decision to end a life was traumatic.

"Things are not so simple," he said. "There's always hope in the eyes of a sick person and that's where it is difficult to bring life to an end."

However, Kouchner was quoted in Le Monde on Monday as saying there were and would always be cases when there had to be an alternative to unending pain and misery.

He said he would organise a debate shortly at the health ministry with healthcare specialists and ethics experts.

"Palliative care does not solve all the problems," he said. "We will always face cases of another dimension, requests to end to a life, for a gentle way out, for assisted suicide."

The Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia after its Senate defied thousands of protesters to vote in favour of mercy killing last week.

The move, which sparked a mixture of praise and outrage across the world, legalised a practice which has been tolerated in the Netherlands for more than two decades. It has triggered fresh calls for similar legal changes in countries such as Belgium and Australia.

Kouchner, co-founder of the medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), returned to French government in February after a stint as U.N. administrator in Kosovo.