No doubt about it: Belgium is the place to be for creative applications of legalised euthanasia.
Last year Belgian transplant surgeons revealed that they had harvested organs from four people who were voluntarily euthanased. Now it appears that one prisoner, a rapist-murderer, has already died after voluntary euthanasia and another has requested it.
A man identified as Frank V.D.B, who had spent 20 years in prison for two murders and rapes, died recently. The date of the euthanasia is not clear from media reports, but it took place outside the prison. It only became known because it was revealed by a politician, Senator Louis Ide, who was complaining about the lack of social services in Belgian jails. He seems to have been tipped off by a prison official.
The case has provoked a controversy in the Belgian media –not over euthanasia but over the violation of the prisoner’s right to privacy. All of the conditions for euthanasia in Belgium were carefully fulfilled: the prisoner had a terminal illness, he had made repeated requests for death, and three doctors had independently ratified the request.
The head of the Belgian prison service defended the system against M Ide’s criticism. “The people on the ground are doing their best and work hard. But it is almost impossible for two people to take proper care of an prisoner. This is a problem in many prisons", Francis Van Mol told the media.
Another prisoner -- been in jail for 27 years for two murders -- has also asked for euthanasia. His request has not been approved yet.
A few years ago Australian activist Dr Philip Nitschke was ridiculed when he called euthanasia possibly “the last frontier in prison reform”. But events in Belgium may vindicate what once seemed an absurd prediction.
One of the most sinister aspects of this news is its secrecy. Four people died and donated their organs between 2005 and 2009 but the news did not emerge until 2011. How many more have happened since then? Does anyone know? The practice is unlikely to have stopped. Similarly, the death of the prisoner only came to light because someone leaked the news to a politician.
Prisoner euthanasia is an alarming development. Belgium has abolished the death penalty for even the most appalling crimes, but legalised euthanasia could revive it for relatively minor ones. Admittedly, there are some safeguards: a patient must be in "constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain" resulting from an accident or incurable illness, he must request it repeatedly, and two or three doctors must approve the request.
But even if these criteria were adequate for ordinary citizens, for prisoners they are simply absurd. Prisoners are psychologically vulnerable. For some of them, their confinement itself is a source of constant and unbearable psychological pain. They are clearly a burden that the state will not regret shedding. They are often friendless and alone in the world. They can be under acute pressure to conform to norms set by other prisoners. A craze for euthanasia could easily sweep through a jail. Remember the 1981 IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland? Ten men died at roughly one-week intervals. That was a special case, but copycat suicides are a serious risk in any jail.
There is little transparency about Belgian euthanasia, but slowly the fears of its critics are being vindicated. The powerful are benefiting from the deaths of the weak and powerless.