Even euthanasia supporters are calling developments in Belgium “worrisome” as a result of two, newly revealed cases that have been given formal approval for medically-induced death. Others see these cases as the tragic result of an ethical “slippery slope” that appears unstoppable in a country that has embraced euthanasia and assisted suicide as acceptable—even expected—ways to die.
The Australian TV news show Dateline followed two Belgians who had been approved by doctors for euthanasia. Simona de Moor, an 85-year-old, physically healthy, mentally sharp woman, decided five minutes after her daughter unexpectedly died from a heart attack that she wanted to have her life ended by a doctor. “The moment they broke the news to me, five minutes later I knew,” de Moor told Dateline reporter Brett Mason. “And nobody in the world will take it away from me.” “It’s driving me mad,” she explained, “and I don’t want to go to a mad house, I want to die here [in my home].”
De Moor and her 58-year-old daughter Vivienne had been very close after the death of de Moor’s husband several years ago. After Vivienne died, de Moor said, “I have no reason to live anymore, grief is unbearable pain.”
According to Belgium’s euthanasia law, a person must be experiencing “unbearable” physical or mental suffering to qualify, but there is no consensus as to what constitutes “unbearable” suffering.
Mason was allowed to film the final minutes of de Moor’s life. “Are you really ready?” asked Dr. Marc Van Hoey, who is a vocal euthanasia advocate. “Absolutely, 100 percent,” de Moor replied. He then handed her a lethal drug cocktail that she drank.
Later Mason asked the doctor how many people he had euthanized. Van Hoey, who is also the president of the Right to Die Society in Flanders, replied, “To be frank, I don’t know, maybe hundreds, or over a hundred.” “A lot of elderly people are not really suffering in the narrow meaning of the word,” he added, “but one plus one plus one makes a whole. That in addition to their age gives them no future, there is nothing left any more, and so quite often they say, I’ve had it with my life.”
Mason later said that de Moor’s death was “the hardest story I’ve told.”
“Most of all, I just feel sad to have said goodbye to someone who was physically healthy and sharp of mind, but believed the best treatment her doctor could offer her was death.”
That was not the only thing that bothered him, however. “I was taken aback—not for the first time in recent weeks—by just how mundane and unremarkable euthanasia is to those who perform it,” he said. [sbs.com.au/news/dateline, 9/15/15]
Belgium’s Federal Euthanasia Review & Evaluation Committee has referred the de Moor case and Van Hoey’s handling of it to a public prosecutor for judicial review.
It is the first time that a Belgian doctor has had to face such a review and possible criminal charges since the country legalized euthanasia in 2002. [sbs.com.au, 10/29/15]
At issue is the fact that Van Hoey did not consult with a psychiatrist as to whether de Moor was qualified for euthanasia, a requirement if a patient’s death is not imminent but the patient has unbearable mental suffering. Van Hoey said that the psychiatrist was unnecessary because of his own expertise. “It’s not, she wants to die because she’s depressed,” he explained. “She wants to die because she’s had it. See the difference?” [National Post, 10/29/15]
The second case Dateline followed was that of Peter Ketelslegers, a 32-year-old father of two who has severe cluster headaches that have left him unable to work or care for his family. “It’s like a knife being stuck in my head,” he told Mason. “It spreads through my whole head. I hit it to get rid of the pain.”
The headaches last up to three hours and can occur several times a day. Ketelslegers has tried different treatments, but nothing has worked. “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone…. I should take care of the children rather than them taking care of me, but I can’t,” he said.
The young father has requested euthanasia. Two doctors have already given their approval. He is waiting for a third doctor’s okay.
Ketelslegers’ wife, Conny, has said she supports his request for death, but “with pain in my heart.” “You would be enormously selfish to keep your husband with you when you know that he’s in so much pain,” she explained. [sbs.com.au/news/dateline, 9/15/15; Daily Mail, 9/15/15; Bio-edge, 9/19/15]
An earlier case, reported in the last Update, involved a depressed 24-year-old woman, fictitiously referred to as Laura, who wants to be euthanized because she’s had suicidal thoughts since she was in kindergarten. “Life is not for me,” she claimed. Doctors have granted her euthanasia request. [Newsweek, 6/29/15; Daily Mail, 6/27/15]
A recent study, published online by BMJ Open (a British Medical Journal website), found that depression and personality disorders are the most common diagnoses in psychiatric patients who request euthanasia in Belgium.
Ninety out of the 100 patients studied had multiple mental health issues, including schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders. After further testing, 12 were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Euthanasia was approved for 48 of the patients. Researchers said there are no guidelines for how to handle psychiatric patients who request death. [BMJ Open, 7/27/15]
Some in Belgium want to expand its induced death eligibility even further by honoring pre-signed euthanasia advance directives for people with dementia.
In a disturbing documentary, titled End Credits, an elderly man with dementia—who has definite lucid periods—emphatically tells doctors that he doesn’t want to be euthanized, even though he appeared to want it earlier.
When asked about this case, bioethicist and euthanasia pioneer Etienne Vermeesch says, “He [the elderly man] no longer has an opinion. We should not ask him again. Some people have a problem with this. But they should recognize that an incompetent person is an incompetent person.”
Vermeesch then offers his advice in the film: “Just give him his normal treatment and add a heavy narcotic. Then when he is asleep you administer an injection and the case is closed.”
[End Credits, 2013; available at youtube.com; search for “End Credits euthanasia”]
[ http://www.patientsrightscouncil.org/site/update-078-volume-29-number-4-2015-4/ ]