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Belgian Constitutional Court fails to uphold health care providers’ right to uphold the right to life

  • Belgian Constitutional Court accepts controversial amendments to euthanasia law

  • Experts consider amendments incompatible with doctors’ right to freedom of conscience and the right to life

Brussels (18 February) – Human rights experts have raised concerns about a ruling the Belgian Constitutional Court handed down on February 17th. The Court upheld amendments expanding the Belgian euthanasia law. The amendments prevent any health care institution from excluding euthanasia procedures due to its religious ethos or by way of “general policy”. They also force any medical practitioner objecting to performing euthanasia to refer a person seeking euthanasia to a “centre or association specialized in the right to euthanasia”. Experts see the right to life and the right to freedom of religion, belief and conscience undermined.

“These amendments not only threaten the right to freedom of conscience for those in the medical profession, they also threaten the right of patients objecting to euthanasia to have access to an environment where they can be sure no euthanasia will be practiced. The weak, the suffering, the sick, the elderly need our compassionate love and support. The World Medical Association has consistently and categorically rejected the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide as being unethical. Patients have better options than euthanasia and healthcare institutions and doctors should be allowed to offer those choices without being coerced in this way,” said Jean-Paul Van De Walle, Legal Counsel for ADF International in Brussels.

Italian Constitutional Court rules to protect the right to life

The ruling stands in stark contrast to a decision of the Italian Constitutional Court on February 15th, which declared a petition calling for a referendum to decriminalize the killing of a consenting person to be inadmissible. The Italian court has set a strong precedent against opening the path towards legalizing euthanasia in the country. The Court argued that “The minimum, constitutionally necessary protections of human life, particularly of the weak and the vulnerable, would not be preserved”.

Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002. In its recently updated White Paper on Euthanasia, the legal advocacy organization ADF International reveals how euthanasia laws have continuously been expanded: initial touted as a rare exception by proponents, to it now being declared a “right” in the new amendments. The organization identifies “worrying trends” that have already lead Belgium down a “very slippery slope” which sees more than 6 people euthanized every day. As a result of previous amendments, in 2014, Belgium is also the first and only country in the world to allow children to be euthanized regardless of their age. A number of countries have publicly expressed concerns at the UN Human Rights Council about the legality of euthanasia in Belgium, stressing its incompatibility with Belgium’s obligations under human rights law, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They have called on the government to “protect and promote the right to life of all people until natural death, without discrimination on the basis of age, disability or any other grounds”.

Why making euthanasia “safe” does not work

The pending case of Tom Mortier at the European Court of Human Rights is an example of the dangers of euthanasia and how so-called “safeguards” guarantee no protection for the vulnerable. Tom Mortier, who is represented by ADF International, received a phone call from a hospital to let him know that his mother had been euthanized for “untreatable depression” the previous day. Tom’s mother was physically healthy, and her treating psychiatrist of more than 20 years expressed doubts that she satisfied the legal requirements of the Belgian euthanasia law. Nonetheless, she was euthanized in 2012 by an oncologist with no known psychiatric qualifications.

The same doctor who euthanized her co-chairs the Federal Commission which reviews euthanasia cases to ensure the law has been respected. He also leads a euthanasia organization which received a payment from Tom Mortier’s mother in the weeks preceding her euthanasia. Despite all this, according to the Belgian government, the Federal Commission voted “unanimously” to approve the euthanasia in this case which the European Court of Human Rights is now reviewing.

“Other countries considering this path should look at Belgium. This most recent step down the slippery slope stands as a clear warning. It expose the truth that, once these laws are passed, the expansion and impact of euthanasia cannot be controlled. Belgium has continued on a trajectory that, at best, implicitly tells the most vulnerable that their lives are not worth living. We urge Belgium to review and repeal its euthanasia legislation in line with its international commitments to protect life. We also encourage Belgian healthcare professionals and those who object to euthanasia to continue raising their concerns and advocating for the protection of life,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International.


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