Belgium slammed by Europe’s highest human rights court over euthanasia

In a major judgment, Europe’s highest human rights court has held that Belgium violated the right to life in a particularly tragic 2012 euthanasia case. Godelieva de Troyer died by legal injection, aged 64. In good physical health, her euthanasia was based on nothing more than an “incurable depression” diagnosis.

Following de Troyer’s death, her son, Tom Mortier, was informed by the hospital to collect her belongings. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had been euthanized. He was not opposed to the practice before, but this set in motion a harrowing series of events culminating with Tom’s application to the European Court of Human Rights in the pursuit of justice. Nothing could bring his mother back, but Tom was unshakeable in his conviction that her fundamental right to life had been violated.

Ten years following her death, the Court has now ruled in Mortier v. Belgium that the country’s federal euthanasia commission lacked independence, constituting a violation of the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Strikingly, the federal commission, responsible for ensuring compliance with euthanasia law, is headed by Belgium’s most famous euthanasia activist—the very same person who administered de Troyer’s lethal injection.

To break down the legalese, the Court’s judgment makes clear that there is no way that this agenda-driven body could ever have imparted accountability to an utterly corrupt process. That said, while it challenges the notion of a “right to die,” the Court falls short of taking a stance against euthanasia and fails to rule against Belgium’s euthanasia laws. Ironically, the Court noted that more “safeguards” make for better euthanasia practice, while finding that in this case such safeguards failed at the most basic level to protect de Troyer’s right to life.

The Court’s failure to rule against Belgium’s euthanasia regime as a whole is hugely problematic; however, the country has received marching orders from the Court insofar as it needs to tackle the corruption inherent to the euthanasia review process.

A first step, as outlined by the Court, is to address the federal commission’s blatant lack of impartiality, which will require concrete changes to the way the system works. The commission must, at minimum, prevent doctors from sitting in on -- or even voting on -- their own euthanasia case reviews. While steps to address the lack of independence in the system would "improve" it and are the minimum required by the Court, the tragic reality is that no amount of "safeguards" can ultimately make the intentional ending of life safe.

Belgian law specifies that to qualify for euthanasia, the person must be in a “medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident”.

De Troyer struggled with depression, but who among us is ready to classify this as a death sentence? Even her longtime physician expressed doubt that she met the legal criteria for euthanasia. And yet, as events in Belgium demonstrate, the “slippery slope” is all too real. When first legalized 20 years ago, the practice was reserved for the most severe of physical maladies. Now, we have become so callous to the ups and downs of human existence that depression is enough to warrant death-by-choice, and a growing movement is clamoring for euthanasia simply on the basis that one is “tired” of life.

This case is but one example of the countless human rights violations emanating from the culture of death that surrounds euthanasia. Although nuanced, the Court’s judgment is an important signal to Europe, and to the world, that legal checks can never be sufficient to counteract the unjustifiable breaches of human rights from death by euthanasia.

Belgium offers an unmistakably grim warning to the world—euthanasia kills far more than just the recipient of the lethal injection. It feeds into a mass societal rejection of fundamental human rights, diminishes the value of human life, and pushes the vulnerable among us to opt for the “selfless” option to die in the fear that they remain a burden to others.

Over 27,000 people have died from euthanasia in Belgium in the last two decades, and that number is more than likely significantly underreported. One in 50 deaths in the country are now by euthanasia, with a growing number of non-severe conditions covered by the poorly defined and shoddily enforced law. Chillingly, in 2021, almost one in five euthanized in Belgium were not expected to die naturally in the near future. 

It is with great urgency that, in the United States and all places considering legalizing euthanasia, we must unfailingly defend the right to life of every person, including the most vulnerable.

In a case filed by Alliance Defending Freedom, a federal district court recently ruled that a California law likely violates the First Amendment rights of medical professionals by requiring them to participate in physician-assisted suicide against their religious convictions and professional ethics. As the lawsuit continues, Americans should look to the horrors unleashed by euthanasia in Belgium and other similar landscapes, which expose without doubt the society-wide tragedy of state sanctioned killing in the name of medicine.

Real dignity means respecting all human life and accompanying those who suffer with authentic treatment and support. No “safeguards” can render euthanasia safe, and we should do everything in our power to steer clear of the destructive vortex surrounding the “death with dignity” lie.


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