Belgium's complacent euthanasia regime under threat

In northern latitudes the sound of spring begins with the booming of snow-covered ice cracking in frozen rivers. Is something like that happening in Belgium?

Officials in the Belgian city of Leuven are investigating about ten euthanasia cases which may not have been done legally.

The public prosecutor was tipped off by an anonymous letter to the De Standaard newspaper. Until the investigation has been completed, police are keeping mum.

The letter said: “Our family member passed away two years ago, and we were told that euthanasia was presumed to have been carried out without the doctors informing us or following the necessary procedure. This has been a very traumatic experience for us.”

Doctors are not required to notify the family if a person wants to be euthanised, but various medical associations strongly recommend it.

Two doctors were named in the letter, both of them associated with nursing homes run by the Emmaus group. The head of the group, a former federal minister, Inge Vervotte, confirmed that the two doctors work with the homes, but she insisted that stressed that the cases being investigated involved patients in their private practice, and not residents of the nursing homes.

Professor Wim Distelmans, Belgium’s chief euthanasia overseer, said that his committee is supposed to be informed about every case of euthanasia, but it doesn’t always happen. “Some doctors are happy to admit that,” he admitted.

“What doctors write down, we naturally take for granted as true,” he said. “Apart from that, and rightly so, everyone is free to file a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office if they think they have reason to.”

In other words, according to Belgium’s Grand Poobah of Euthanasia, move along please, there’s nothing to see here.

But there is.

Regulation of euthanasia in Belgium would not pass the smell test for conflict of interest in countries like the US or the UK.

Dr Distelmans, a photogenic, charismatic oncologist, is the most egregious example of a bizarre euthanasia Mafia which appears to set the agenda for euthanasia in Belgium. He is the head of the regulatory body; he is perhaps the country’s best-known practitioner of euthanasia (he has reportedly killed hundreds of people); he is the chairman of the country’s leading euthanasia lobby, LEIF; and he is the media’s go-to man for comment on euthanasia.

Conflict of interest, anyone?

The European Court of Human Rights is currently considering the case of a Belgian woman, Godelieva De Troyer, who was euthanised in 2012. Wim Distelmans was her doctor. Her son, Tom Mortier, claims not only that he was left out of the process, but that there were legal irregularities in the way that the euthanasia was carried out.

“The facts of this case, and the requirements of the law in Belgium, are so far apart that it demonstrates that if you legalize euthanasia, you cannot control it,” says Robert Clarke, an English barrister acting for Mortier.

Local authorities have dismissed the long-running case as a smear campaign. A leading Belgian intellectual, the late Etienne Vermeersch, the former president of the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics, defended Distelmans in a 2014 newspaper op-ed. In it he declared, in a baffling display of chauvinistic delusion, that Belgium, together with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where euthanasia is also legal, “stands, ethically, at the top of the world.”

Now it appears that the tragic death of Godelieva De Troyer may not have been an outlier.

Stay tuned.


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