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Euthanasia in Belgium: When Should a Doctor Help Die?

— April 15, 2021

Meanwhile, discussions about euthanasia in Belgium are not dying down.

Germany liberalized the euthanasia law. Euthanasia was officially allowed in Belgium back in 2002. This country has the most liberal law governing the provision of assistance with voluntary withdrawal from life.

On February 26, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the ban on euthanasia on a commercial basis was contrary to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. Judges in Karlsruhe saw in him a violation of the rights of seriously ill people and doctors. Thus, euthanasia on a commercial basis is also officially permitted in Germany.

In Belgium, the law on euthanasia came into force almost 20 years ago. Since then, Belgians have the right to consult a doctor with a request to help them voluntarily die, for example, in the case of an incurable disease. The Belgian law on euthanasia is called the most liberal in the world, but its adoption was preceded by heated discussions.

After euthanasia has been officially allowed, individual cases of its use now and then become the subject of legal proceedings, and this indicates the need to reconsider the boundaries of what is permissible in cases when it literally refers to the life and death of people.

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Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

Euthanasia for mental illness – the “gray area”

One of the most notorious cases, causing controversy in society, occurred 10 years ago. In 2010, three doctors helped the death of 38-year-old Tine Nys, who had been suffering from severe mental illness for a long time. She tried to commit suicide six times, ended up in a wheelchair, underwent treatment in a psychiatric hospital 15 times and declared many times that she wanted to die.

Nys’s mental illness was caused by psychological trauma: as a child, she was sexually abused and abused. In the end, her psychiatrist decided to grant the patient’s request, since her illness was incurable and caused her unbearable suffering.

In this case, it seemed, according to Belgian law, all the criteria for the use of euthanasia were met. In Belgium and the Netherlands, this practice of assistance with voluntary withdrawal from life is allowed in the case of severe mental illness. But the story of Tine Nys became the subject of legal proceedings, as the relatives of the deceased considered the actions of the doctors to be wrong. In their opinion, Tine should have been helped without resorting to euthanasia.

At the end of January 2020, a court in Ghent, after a lengthy trial, found three doctors who had previously been charged with the murder of Tine Nys innocent. This case showed that the use of euthanasia in Belgium for severe mental illness remains a gray area, and doctors may find themselves in the dock.

The story of Marieke Vervoort 

Five years ago in Belgium, the use of euthanasia for children was allowed. For each of these cases, a special commission makes a separate decision. Since the law came into force, euthanasia has been used against two children and one terminally ill teenager. In all three cases, the patients suffered from unbearable pain. Last year, the topic of voluntary withdrawal assistance was again brought to public attention in connection with the case of the Belgian Paralympic athlete Marieke Vervoort.

As a teenager, Vervoort was diagnosed with an incurable, progressive muscle disease, due to which she was forced to move in a wheelchair for more than 15 years. Vervoort has won gold, two silver and bronze medals at two Paralympics. And in 2016, she became Belgium’s Athlete of the Year.

In 2008, Vervoort signed all the necessary documents, giving consent to euthanasia in the event that her condition deteriorated to unbearable. At the 2016 Paralympics, Vervoort became a silver medalist at a distance of 400 meters and a bronze medalist at a distance of 100 meters. Before the start of that Paralympics, she announced in an interview with The Telegraph newspaper that she intends to voluntarily die. But then she said that the journalists misunderstood her words. On October 22, 2019, Marieke Vervoort voluntarily passed away by means of euthanasia.

Pros and cons of euthanasia

Meanwhile, discussions about euthanasia in Belgium are not dying down. Karin Brochet of the European Bioethics Institute is one of those who oppose euthanasia. She cites the example of a case where doctors used euthanasia on a patient who lived in a nursing home. And it looked as if the doctors had gone too far, unconditionally fulfilling her wish. “Euthanasia is a right of every person, but it is applied only in exceptional cases, when all other means can no longer help,” Brochier points out.

Oncologist Professor Jan Bernheim of the Free University of Brussels, in turn, has a different opinion. He formulated the definition of “integrated palliative care” when it comes to the fact that euthanasia can become part of palliative care. Thus, he believes, “advocates advocating the legalization of euthanasia have reason to support palliative medicine, and opponents will not oppose euthanasia for long.”

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