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20 years of euthanasia in Belgium: after almost 30,000 lives lost, what can we learn?

  • Rate of euthanasia in Belgium has increased from 235 lives lost per year (2003), to 7 lives lost per day (2021)
  • As Scotland and others consider legalisation, Belgian citizen Tom Mortier challenges Belgium’s law at Europe’s top court after his mother was euthanised for depression without his knowledge
LONDON/BRUSSELS (26 May 2022) – Over 27,000 people have died from euthanasia in Belgium since it was legalised 20 years ago on 28th May 2002, according to the latest official data from Belgian authorities. The country has been cited as an example of a “slippery slope” that concerned parties warn is inevitable with such legislation. Belgium provides a revealing case study for other governments considering similar laws. For example, a Private Members Bill is currently pending in Scotland that would legalise “assisted dying”. It was announced this week, however, that plans to introduce the bill would be considerably delayed due to an “unprecedented” response to the public consultation. Meanwhile, a similar proposal was introduced in the Isle of Mann’s lower parliamentary house, the House of Keys, on 24th May. “A fair and just society cares for its most vulnerable. International law protects everyone’s inherent right to life. It requires countries to protect the inherent dignity and lives of all people, rather than to help end those lives,” said Jean-Paul Van De Walle, legal counsel for ADF International in Brussels, Belgium. The “Slippery Slope” Though euthanasia was initially legalized under narrow, “strict conditions”, updates to the law have seen Belgium become the first and only country in the world to have no lower age limit enforced for children. Belgian cases have also included instances where patients have been euthanised for psychiatric conditions, including depression.

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In 2021, almost one in five who were euthanised were not expected to die naturally in the immediate future. “Sadly, over the years in Belgium, we have seen far too many people end their lives rather than have the care and support that they require to live. In one very moving case – the only so far that has been brought before a criminal tribunal – the life of a 38-year-old woman diagnosed with autism, Tine Nys, was tragically ended by euthanasia due to her battle with mental health issues. Surely such vulnerable groups deserve better care and support to live,” continued Van De Walle. In a move that Van De Walle says “threatens” the right to conscientious objection, a 2020 amendment in the law prevents health care institutions from objecting – by way of general policy or by specific provision – to euthanasia being practiced within the premises of their institution.
Belgium’s law challenged at Europe’s top court The controversial euthanasia law is being challenged at the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Tom Mortier v. Belgium. The outcome will have the potential to set a precedent for euthanasia laws across forty-seven European countries, including the United Kingdom. Tom Mortier’s mother was euthanised in 2012, aged 64. Without any prior consultation, Tom Mortier was informed one day after her death, with the explanation that she had been suffering from ‘untreatable depression’. “The big problem in our society is that apparently we have lost the meaning of taking care of each other,” said Tom Mortier. The Belgian law specifies that 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.’ Mortier’s mother was physically healthy, and her treating psychiatrist of more than 20 years expressed doubts as to whether she satisfied the requirements of the Belgian euthanasia law. Nonetheless, she was euthanized by an oncologist with no known psychiatric qualifications. “My mother had a severe mental problem. She had to cope with depression throughout her life. She was treated for years by psychiatrists and eventually the contact between us was broken. A year later she received a lethal injection. Neither the oncologist who administered the injection, nor the hospital had informed me or any of my siblings that our mother was even considering euthanasia,” he continued. The same doctor who euthanised Tom Mortier’s mother 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 death. Despite all this, according to the Belgian government, the Federal Commission saw no issue with letting the euthanasia take place. Tom Mortier is challenging Belgium’s euthanasia law with support from ADF International. Find out more. “The slippery slope is on full public display in Belgium. Tom Mortier’s case exposes the lie that euthanasia is good for society. International law has never established a so-called ‘right to die.’ On the contrary, it solidly affirms the right to life – particularly for the most vulnerable among us,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International, and lead counsel for Tom Mortier at the European Court of Human Rights in Mortier v. Belgium. Find more information about euthanasia laws in ADF International’s White Paper. 

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