Son's Wish to Die, and Mother's Help, Stir French Debate

September 27, 2003



PARIS, Sept. 26 - "I Ask the Right to Die," written by
Vincent Humbert, a 22-year-old French paraplegic, hit
bookstores here on Thursday. Today he died, two days after
his mother put an overdose of sedatives into his
intravenous line.

She acted on the third anniversary of the car accident that
left him paralyzed, mute and blind.

His death and his book calling for the legalization of
euthanasia have transfixed the nation and drawn the debate
over assisted suicide out of hospital wards and into
people's homes.

Assisted suicide is outlawed in France but is permitted
under certain circumstances in the Netherlands and Belgium.
It is fully legal in Switzerland, where there are
associations that help terminally ill patients kill

Radio call-in programs, television talk shows and the
opinion pages of the country's newspapers have swelled with
discussion of Mr. Humbert's death and what punishment, if
any, his mother, Marie Humbert, should receive.

Ms. Humbert, 48, who had campaigned for the right to end
her son's life, was taken into custody by the police on
suspicion of attempted murder late Wednesday but was
released on Thursday and allowed to see her son before he
died. She was subsequently hospitalized at an undisclosed
location. Her current whereabouts is unknown.

Libération, the country's largest left-wing daily, praised
Ms. Humbert in an editorial headlined, "Let us end this
hypocrisy." An editorial in Le Monde, France's leading
newspaper, called only for a national debate but pointed
out that the country's national ethics consulting committee
recommended in January 2000 that a law be passed legalizing
euthanasia in exceptional cases.

So far, the country's judicial system is dealing gently
with Ms. Humbert, who won enormous public sympathy in her
campaign for euthanasia.

Justice Minister Dominique Perben asked prosecutors in a
statement today "to act with the greatest humanity in
applying the law, taking into account the suffering of the
mother and the young man." The lead prosecutor in the case
told reporters that an official inquiry into Mr. Humbert's
death would be undertaken "in due time."

Mr. Humbert's plight captured national attention last
December after he wrote a direct appeal to France's
president, Jacques Chirac, asking for the legal right to
end his own life. Mr. Chirac wrote back that he could not
grant the request "because the president of the republic
doesn't have that right, but I understand your helplessness
and deep despair in facing the living conditions that you

Mr. Humbert then set about writing his book from his bed at
the same hospital in the northern port of Berck-sur-Mer
where Jean-Dominique Bauby, all but incapacitated by a
stroke, wrote his haunting memoir, <object.title
class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="158906">"The Diving
Bell and the Butterfly."</object.title> Mr. Bauby died in
1997, two days after his book was published.

Mr. Humbert wrote his book with the help of a journalist,
Frédéric Veille, by pressing with his thumb and nodding his
head to spell out words as Mr. Veille read repeatedly
through the alphabet.

In "I Ask the Right to Die," Mr. Humbert recounts with
heartbreaking bitterness how his life as a healthy, careful
young fireman ended when his car met an oncoming truck on a
narrow country road. After enduring months of ebbing hope
that he would recover any of his lost faculties - he even
lost his senses of taste and smell - he decided he wanted
to die and with his mother began the campaign.

Mr. Humbert had argued to be allowed to end his life
legally in France because he was unable to afford the cost
of transport abroad, even if it could have been arranged.

"Then, so that you understand me better, so that the debate
about euthanasia finally reaches another level, so that
this word and this act are no longer a taboo subject, so
that we no longer let live lucid people like me who want to
put an end to their own suffering, I wanted to write this
book that I will never read," he wrote.

In the book, which was the second-best-selling title on
France's Web site this morning, Mr. Humbert
described asking his mother to kill him and her decision to
do so. As the third anniversary of his Sept. 24 accident
approached, his mother signaled her intention to kill her
son in media interviews.

Ms. Humbert injected sedatives into her son's intravenous
drip late Wednesday, sending him into a coma. The family
then pleaded with doctors to let him die. Mr. Humbert died
today after doctors abandoned efforts to keep him alive,
saying in a statement that they had made their "collective
and difficult decision in complete independence."

Mr. Humbert's book ends with a plea to readers to empathize
with his mother and leave her in peace. "What she has done
for me is surely the most beautiful proof of love in the
world," he wrote.