France gets closer to 'deep sleep' law for terminally ill patients

PARIS - French lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday in favour of a law allowing medics to place terminally ill patients into a deep sleep until they die.

The law, which has reignited the deeply divisive debate about euthanasia, also makes "living wills" - drafted by people who do not want to be kept alive artificially if they are too ill to decide - legally binding on doctors.

"Sleep before death to avoid suffering," said MP Jean Leonetti, summing up the law he had proposed.

The law was passed by 436 votes to 34 in Parliament. The session was briefly interrupted when a group of people threw bits of paper from the gallery, with slogans such as "No to euthanasia".

Euthanasia is illegal in France, but President Francois Hollande pledged in his 2012 presidential campaign to look into an issue that divides a country where heart rending end-of-life stories continue to make headlines.

Polls show that the French people are overwhelmingly in favour (96 per cent in a recent survey) of putting patients into a deep sleep if they are able to make the decision themselves. This drops only slightly (to 88 per cent) if the medical team takes the decision because the patient is unable. Eight out of 10 French people would even go further than the draft law, and legalise euthanasia.

A 2005 French law already legalises passive euthanasia, where treatment needed to maintain life is withheld or withdrawn. But the new law goes further, allowing doctors to couple this with "deep and continuous sedation" for terminally ill patients.

The debate on euthanasia regularly opposes those who say the sanctity of life must be respected at all costs and those who believe terminally ill patients in unbearable pain must be allowed to die with dignity.

Health Minister Marisol Touraine has been steadfast in her refusal to legalise euthanasia and an amendment to the law allowing "medical assistance to die" was rejected. Several deputies - notably from the Green party and the radical left - had vowed to abstain in the vote, saying it did not go far enough.

On the other side of the debate, around 20 deputies from the opposition right-wing UMP party had said they would abstain because they believed the draft law went too far towards allowing euthanasia.

A total of 83 lawmakers abstained in the vote. The law will now be presented to the Senate, or upper house of Parliament.