The tragic death of Chantal Sebire

The public parading of a severely disfigured French woman who wanted the ‘right to die’ was the equivalent of a modern-day freak show.

Kevin Yuill

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Chantal Sebire, a 52-year-old former schoolteacher and mother of three, was refused the right to die by a French court last week. Ms Sebire suffered from a disfiguring and incurable facial tumour. Shortly after the court’s refusal, she was found dead. Although the precise cause of death is not yet known, an early autopsy suggests it was not from natural causes, and many suspect that Ms Sebire took her own life.

Ms Sebire’s fight for the ‘right to die’ had become big news in France. She appeared on French TV last month asking for President Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene and allow doctors to help her to die. She said that, due to the severe deformity of her face, she could no longer see properly, taste or smell. She also described how children ran away from her in the street. ‘One would not allow an animal to go through what I have endured’, she said.

The case of Ms Sebire sparked intense debate and sympathy across France and throughout the world, especially in the blogosphere. At first glance, this looked like a tragic case of bureaucratic intransigence preventing what many feel would be a humane outcome. Sarah Wootton of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns in the UK to legalise assisted suicide (or ‘assisted dying’ in politically correct terms), said before Ms Serbire’s death: ‘It is immensely sad that because France has no assisted dying law, Chantal Sebire will continue to suffer.’

This case was extremely tragic. There is no question that Ms Sebire deserved our sympathy. But we must look deeper to understand the real implications of the case. First, Ms Sebire stated that she wanted to ‘die with dignity’, surrounded by her loved ones. But this is a right that no one has or can have. Death takes us unawares in circumstances not of our own choosing, and seldom in dignity. Think of the widely publicised details of the death of Elvis Presley or those of countless other figures throughout history.

It is worth remembering that Ms Sebire was asking for the right to be assisted to die, not the right to die itself. We all have that so-called ‘right’. Indeed, France was one of the first countries to legalise suicide, which it did in 1790. There was little to prevent Ms Sebire from taking her own life, quietly, out of the limelight – and she seems to have taken that option in the end.

Ms Sebire, despite describing the awfulness of children running away at the sight of her, chose to display the physical depredations of her condition in front of millions of people on TV. Why? She explained: ‘I simply wanted to show that I was fighting to raise awareness.’ Yet this was not awareness of the disease, of which there have been only 200 recorded cases in the past two decades, but rather awareness of her suffering and of the fact that French law prevents assisting a suicide.

Ms Sebire’s pressure may well prove to be effective. Luxembourg is at the moment in the process of liberalising the law on assisted suicide, completing the Benelux countries’ legalisation. Switzerland, too, allows assisted suicide, and such high-profile cases as Ms Serbire’s bring an outpouring of support for a change in the law.

But there seem to have been some deeper reasons for Ms Sebire’s appearance on TV as she was fighting for the right to be assisted in her suicide. Could it be that Ms Sebire, or at least those who worked alongside her in her campaign, was participating in a voyeuristic freak show where people flock to see the suffering of others? In the past, freak shows were a debased, crude and cruel way in which people could feel normal in relation to the poor souls paraded in front of them. These shows were rightly condemned for their denial of the humanity of the ‘freaks’ on display.


Chantal Sebire, who suffered from
the extremely rare disease
Esthesioneuroblastoma.

In the modern-day freak show, we relate to the suffering of afflicted individuals in a process no less dehumanising than the freak shows of old. We see the disfigurement and immediately imagine her suffering. By recognising her pain, our own pain is validated. We react to Ms Sebire like we do to an animal suffering without knowing anything about her, about her life or about anything else other than her disfigurement. In the public debate in France, Ms Sebire became as dehumanised as the original ‘freaks’, and the viewers were little better than the gawking and voyeuristic rubes that paid to see disfigurement in the past. The case of Ms Sebire shows the extent to which the pro-euthanasia lobby reduces people to illnesses or afflictions: they are no longer looked upon as full human beings with lives and loves, but rather as physical sufferers who must be helped to ‘exit’.

Ms Sebire, of course, cannot be blamed for having gone along with this circus. She was seeking understanding, in the belief that if we had understood the depth of her suffering, we would surely have given her the ‘right to die’. And if we had not given her that right? Then clearly we could not possibly have understood her pain. This is perhaps why so many campaigners for assisted suicide die natural deaths (unlike, it seems, Ms Sebire) – many of them are really seeking only validation of their suffering.

The French courts, to their credit, resisted the emotional blackmail of pro-euthanasia campaigners and refused Ms Sebire the right to be assisted in her suicide. If they had succumbed to the campaigning, they would implicitly have endorsed the idea that death is an understandable and legitimate response to suffering – a judgement that might possibly have nurtured fatalism and a weakness of spirit across France and elsewhere in Europe. Just because someone deserves our compassion does not mean that we should agree to anything that he or she says. But the pressure is mounting for changes in the law across the Western world as case after case is dragged before the public, and as people who deserve our sympathy are turned into ‘freaks’ who deserve a round of applause as they decide to end their lives.

Kevin Yuill is lecturer in American studies at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Previously on spiked

Kevin Yuill felt the case of Colin Norris indicated the devaluation of old people’s lives. Elsewhere, he said no thanks to the ‘right to die’ and argued that those supporting euthanasia gave cultural approval to suicide. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death while Brendan O’Neill peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

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