Historic first trial of euthanasia doctors begins in Belgium

Tine Nys (centre) with her two sisters  On Tuesday an historic trial commences in Belgium. It will be the first time that doctors have faced criminal charges over euthanasia since it was legalised in 2002. Three of them have been charged with illegal poisoning. If convicted, they face stiff prison sentences. The deceased was a 38-year-old woman, Tine Nys, who died in 2010.

Three doctors are in the dock: the doctor who administered the lethal injection, Nys’s former general practitioner and a psychiatrist. None of them has been identified publicly. Prosecutors allege that under the existing law Nys was not eligible for euthanasia. 

The trial follows a long campaign by Nys’s parents and her two sisters. They allege that she did not have an incurable mental disorder, as the Belgian law requires for euthanasia patients. Although she had mental health issues, the real reason she wanted to die was a failed relationship. Even in Belgium, disappointed love is not  considered a sufficient reason for a doctor to kill a patient. 

The sisters also complained that the doctor carried out the lethal injection in a careless and insensitive manner. "He likened her death to that of a pet that is in pain and is having a shot," they told Flemish TV in 2016. "He also asked our father to hold the needle in her arm because he had forgotten to bring plasters. When she had died he asked our parents if they wanted to listen through the stethoscope to check her heart had actually stopped beating."

Jury selection will be a major issue. Sixty people have been summoned for the 12-person panel. One of the defence lawyers, Walter Van Steenbrugge, told the media that he wants to exclude all devout Catholics, especially those who have a devotion to the Virgin Mary. His team has been reviewing the social media posts of all of the prospective jurors.

"It goes without saying that I will reject people who would turn out to be ‘extremely Catholic’ -- for example if they have a great Marian devotion,” said the lawyer. “We do not want a jury member who would appear to have ever written that euthanasia should be considered murder. Isn't that natural? As a defence lawyer, we are in any case subjective. I would be a bad lawyer if I didn't reject such people. "   

It is amazing that it has taken 18 years to put a doctor on trial in Belgium. According to the official statistics, about 20,000 people have died of euthanasia or assisted suicide since legalisation in 2002 – and it is generally agreed that there is widespread under-reporting. Has nothing untoward ever happened?

Euthanasia doctors in Belgium are always pushing the envelope, but authorities have always protected the doctors.

In 2018 a whistleblower accused the Federal Commission for Euthanasia Control and Evaluation, the body which regulates euthanasia in Belgium, of deliberately violating the law.

Dr Ludo Van Opdenbosch, a neurologist who had been a Commission member for several years, resigned in September 2017. In his letter of resignation he said that the Commission failed to refer to prosecutors a doctor who had euthanised a demented patient because the family requested it.

When he expressed concerns about other problematic cases, he claimed that he had been "silenced" by other members of the Commission. He suggested that because many of the doctors on the commission are leading euthanasia practitioners, they protect each other from scrutiny and they act with “impunity”.

Unsurprisingly, the two co-chairs of the commission, Dr Wim Distelmans and Gilles Genicot, denied at the time that there had been any negligence.

But can they be trusted? 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 the bizarre euthanasia Mafia which sets the agenda 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.

So the astonishing thing about this trial is that it is happening at all.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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