French UMP party member of Parliament Jean Leonetti speaks on a bill about  the terminally ill, on January 21, 2015, at the French National Assembly in Paris.

Story highlights

French Parliament approves Tuesday a bill that would allow doctors to put patients under deep sedation until they die

Critics call the proposed law euthanasia in disguise

More than 90% of French people support the bill

CNN  — 

If death is the big sleep, as it is sometimes called, is there anything wrong with a dying person choosing a medically induced smaller sleep – deep sedation – to avoid the pain of a terminal illness?

Is it OK for a patient to choose to spend his or her final days on this mortal coil in what would amount to a medically induced coma?

Or is it simply euthanasia in disguise?

Members of the French Parliament offered resounding support Tuesday for the proposition that is should be permissible for doctors to induce sleep until death in terminally ill patients who are in pain. They approved a bill allowing that by a vote of 436-34.

There were, however, 83 lawmakers who declined to vote – a measure of just how contentious the issue has been. The bill goes now to the French Senate.

Should it become law, doctors would be allowed to administer “deep sedation until death” to terminally ill patients who request it, and for whom palliative care would not ease the pain. The law would also allow doctors who have stopped life-saving measures to administer deep sedation, if they deem it appropriate, to terminally ill patients who are unable to give their consent.

“Everyone has the right to a death that is dignified and soothed,” the proposed law says. And health professionals, it continues, should “implement all the means at their disposal to fulfill this right.”

What the law entails, according to Jean Leonetti, the member of Parliament who proposed it, is simple: “Sleep before death to avoid suffering.”

What it also entails is legal protection for doctors who, in fact, already sedate some dying patients, and who are sometimes taken to court by relatives as a result.

Euthanasia is illegal in France, though President Francois Hollande promised in his 2012 campaign that he would reopen the issue. Polls show that more than 90% of French people support the proposal – an astonishing majority for any proposal – and Hollande has said it would represent a big step forward.

But, as might be predicted, the proposed law has proved divisive in the extreme. Some lawmakers on the left of the political spectrum said in advance they would abstain from Tuesday’s vote because they thought the bill did not go far enough toward legalizing euthanasia. And some on the right said they, too, would abstain, because they saw the law is a way of legalizing euthanasia in disguise.

CNN’s Jim Bittermann in Paris contributed to this report