The vast majority of people in France support assisted dying for the terminally ill, but despite several recent attempts to get the law changed, it remains illegal here. Jacqueline Jencquel believes choosing when you die is a fundamental right and even planned her own death.
Jencquel is a youthful-looking 77 and while she isn’t terminally-ill, her health is declining and she’s lost much of what used to give her pleasure: she can eat little, alcohol is out, so is sex.
She wants to end her life before she reaches a point where she can no longer control it.
“I don’t want to be put in a nursing home, to end up in intensive care, to be in the emergency ward of a hospital," she says reclining on a large sofa in her comfortable Paris apartment. "I don't want to be declared crazy … because that’s what happens when you talk of suicide, you get locked up.
“I would like to be able to part, elegantly and dignified, before too long."
But that’s not possible in France. Unlike in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg and Switzerland — where either assisted dying or assisted suicide is authorised — France allows only “passive” euthanasia.
This means doctors here can stop treatment and place patients in a state of deep and continuous sedation to allow them to die. It can take days, even weeks, and is reserved to patients suffering from incurable illnesses.
“It shouldn’t be for doctors to decide,” Jencquel says. “It’s about democracy and liberty."
She deplores that constitutions in Europe "guarantee the right to self-determination, the right to choose your religion, the way you live, your sexuality, everything except your death. Why?"
Listen to Jacqueline Jencquel in the Spotlight on France podcast
Heading to Basle
Jencquel decided to take life – and death – into her own hands, and registered with a Swiss organisation called Life Circle which practises assisted suicide.
“I had chosen 20 July 2020, I like that date,” she says. But life got in the way.
Her daughter in law fell pregnant and in March that year sent Jencquel an ultrasound scan showing her future grandson.
“She even had a C-section so the baby was born on my birthday. And they called the boy Jack. Everyone calls me Jack too. You can’t refuse a present like that,” she says philosophically.
Jencquel was derided on social media for failing to meet her rendezvous with death. But she says humans are complex.
“On the one side there’s the lucid rational being that says it’s better to get organised before the stroke or whatever hits you. And then there’s the animal that wants to live and hang on if it’s not suffering terribly.”
The last three minutes
Jencquel hasn’t set a new date, but still plans to head to Switzerland unless French law changes.
“I will go to Basle, accompanied by a friend who works for Life Circle,” she explains matter of factly. “My friend will ask me a few questions, it's for the police who come afterwards. I have to lie down and then be able to turn off the tap of the drip by myself. Once you’ve done that, it’s three minutes and you’re dead.”
She compares the process to putting our favourite pets to sleep when they’re suffering and wonders "why we wouldn't do the same".
Help and support
Jencquel is a volunteer with the French association for the right to die with dignity (ADMD) and regularly talks to seriously ill people who want to put an end to their suffering. She often advises them against seeking out euthanasia.
“I’ve advised them to do something different, to travel, see a shrink, to come and talk to me, I’ve been talking to some people for three or four years,” she says.
She’s proud to have helped bring some people back from the brink by giving them a sense of purpose.
But in cases where the demand to end their lives is deep and persistant, she has accompanied some to Switzerland, or facilitated that process.
The trip costs around 10,000 euros, putting it out of many people's reach.
Too ill to protest
While an IFOP poll earlier this year showed around 90 percent of the French supported assisted suicide for the incurably ill, attempts to get it through parliament have failed.
In April this year, a handful of mainly right-wing MPs sunk the assisted suicide bill by tabling some 3,000 amendments, making a vote impossible in the allotted time.
Jencquel says medical and pharmaceutical lobbies are active in parliament. The nursing home lobby is particularly powerful “with five of the richest families in France owning nursing homes”.
What’s more, the elderly struggle to make themselves heard.
“Old people and sick people can’t take to the streets like the gilets jaunes and march for their rights. Nobody seems to care, nobody seems to speak about the rights of the old.”
Meanwhile opponents of assisted dying maintain that France’s existing system of “passive euthanasia” is sufficient. There are also concerns that if the law is eased, ill-intentioned family members could pressure their elderly relatives into leaving before their time.
Jencquel says what matters is choice. “I’m more for life than for death. I’m for living well and dying well and a dignified life also includes a dignified death.”
A campaign issue
In September this year a cross-party group of MPs pressured the government to put the assisted suicide bill back on the parliamentary calendar.
There may not be time for that before France heads into presidential elections in the spring, but end of life care is set to feature in the campaign.
The hard-left France Unbowed, the Greens and the Socialist party candidate Anne Hidalgo are favourable to assisted suicide.
President Macron is on the record as saying in 2017: “I myself wish to choose the end of my life” although he has always refused to weigh in personally on the debate.
While waiting for a change in the law, Jencquel continues to work within what she considers a deeply hypocritical system, putting people in contact with French doctors who are prepared to help.
ADMD estimates that between 2,000 and 4,000 acts of euthanasia are carried out each year in France.