A humane society cares for its sick and old.
What does this look like and what role should law and policy play in shaping a culture that values all life? What does ‘dying with dignity’ really mean?
Tom Mortier hadn’t given much thought to Belgium’s liberal euthanasia laws. He didn’t think they affected him. Tom is a university professor in Belgium, where he has lectured since 2006. For Tom, it seemed that if a person wanted to die, who are we to stop him? Why can’t that person simply make that choice? Besides, it doesn’t affect anyone else.
Tom’s perspective changed forever one day when he received a phone call. The caller was from a hospital, letting him know that he needed to take care of his mother’s affairs since she had been euthanized.
Tom was shocked. His mother had suffered with chronic depression for more than twenty years. Her depression had been particularly exacerbated after the break down of a relationship with a long-term partner in 2010.
‘My mother had a severe mental problem. She had to cope with depression throughout her life. She was treated for years by psychiatrists, and the contact between us was broken,’ Tom has said.
Yet, Tom had no idea that she was going to be given a lethal injection. Neither the oncologist who administered the injection, nor the hospital, informed him that euthanasia had been offered to his mother.
‘And the day after, I was contacted by the hospital, asking me to take care of the practicalities following the euthanasia of my mother,’ Tom says. His anger and sadness are palpable.
Oncologist Wim Distelmans killed Godelieva De Troyer, Tom’s mother, because of ‘untreatable depression’. Three other physicians consented to De Troyer’s request for euthanasia, but none had previous material involvement with her care.
What’s more, De Troyer’s request was granted after she made a 2,500 EUR donation to Life End Information Forum, which Distelmans co-founded.
That’s not all. Distelmans is also the co-chair of the federal euthanasia commission which ‘evaluates’ euthanasia cases after the event to ensure that requirements of the law were followed.
Clearly, this was a conflict of interest.
When euthanasia, or doctor-assisted death, was first legalized in Belgium, most people understood ‘unbearable suffering’ to mean a physical terminal illness. Promises were made that euthanasia would be well regulated, with strict criteria.
But today, fifteen years later, the demand for euthanasia has increased a hundredfold from when it was first legalized. Now, deteriorating eyesight, hearing and mobility—what we might consider normal aging—can be considered by law as ‘unbearable suffering’ and qualify patients for euthanasia.
Even more frightening, the next step was to legalize child euthanasia, which happened in 2014. There is now no age restriction on euthanasia for minors in Belgium.
Euthanasia is quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception. ‘You see how it goes further and further,’ says Robert Clarke, English barrister and Director of European Advocacy for ADF International, who represents Tom Mortier before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). ‘And so that’s why it is important to show that there is no logical stopping point once you go down that road.’
In fact, more than six people each day are euthanized. And that’s only according to official reports. Some say that just 50 per cent of cases are actually reported. ‘Belgium has set itself on a trajectory that, at best, implicitly tells its most vulnerable that their lives are not worth living,’ Clarke says.