Criticism of Belgium policy of euthanizing the mentally ill

By Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director – Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Alex Schadenberg

Alex Schadenberg

On October 19, the Washington Post published an article by columnist Charles Lane examining the recent report from Belgium’s Federal Commission on the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia that was presented in the Belgian parliament on October 7.

Lane, in his article, focuses on the data related to euthanasia for psychiatric reasons. Lane reports in his article:

In the 2014-2015 period, the report says, 124 of the 3,950 euthanasia cases in Belgium involved persons diagnosed with a “mental and behavioral disorder,” four more than in the previous two years. Tiny Belgium’s population is 11.4 million; 124 euthanasias over two years there is the equivalent of about 3,500 in the United States.

The figure represents 3.1 percent of all 2014-2015 euthanasia cases — and a remarkable 20.8 percent of the (also remarkable) 594 non-terminal patients to whom Belgian doctors administered lethal injections in that period.

The Euthanasia Deception documentary features Belgian people with personal experience with euthanasia and assisted suicide. One of the interviews concerns a man whose depressed mother died by euthanasia.

Lane points out that Belgian euthanasia is now being criticized:

Recent newspaper articles and documentaries focused on cases in which psychiatrists euthanized or offered to euthanize people with mental illnesses, some still in their 20s or 30s, under dubious circumstances.

In December, 65 Belgian mental-health professionals, ethicists and physicians published a call to ban euthanasia of the mentally ill.

Seemingly stung by these criticisms, the commission spends two of its report’s pages defending the system, explaining that all is well and that no one is being euthanized except in strict accordance with the law.

Wim Distelmans, who is the chair of the Belgian Federal Commission on the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia, defends the Belgian law. But Distelmans is also the doctor who operates a euthanasia clinic that is responsible for a large percentage of the euthanasia deaths for psychiatric reasons.

Lane writes:

In particular, the regulatory panel — chaired by Wim Distelmans, a leading proponent of euthanasia who conducts the procedure himself — defends the one-month waiting period required between the time a mentally ill or otherwise cognitively impaired person puts his or her signature on a written request for death, and the time it may be carried out.

Objections that this is too little time are “unfounded,” the report asserts, because “the formation of the true will of the patient is a long process that takes several months, sometimes years,” then culminates in the written request. In any case, the waiting time is often longer in practice.

Lane counters Distelmans defense of psychiatric euthanasia by quoting from the 65 Belgian mental-health professionals, ethicists and physicians who oppose the practise:

“We see that some who were first declared incurable, eventually abandon euthanasia because new prospects showed up. In a paradoxical way, this proves that the disease cannot be called incurable.”

Lane then cites the data concerning euthanasia for psychiatric reasons:

This, regarding a Belgian medical system that over the past two years administered lethal injections upon the request of five non-terminally ill people with schizophrenia, five with autism, eight with bipolar disorder and 29 with dementia — an increasingly common condition in the aging Western world — as well as 39 with depression, according to the report.

As a father of an adult autistic son, I find this data very disturbing.

Lane continues by stating that the American Psychiatric Association is “currently considering a policy statement on euthanasia , which is still subject to final approval by the board of trustees, which may include a declaration that it is unethical for any psychiatrist to participate in the euthanasia of a non-terminal patient, according to officials of that organization.”

Lane adds in conclusion, the World Psychiatric Association “which has heretofore discouraged but not specifically banned psychiatric participation in euthanasia, is planning to revisit that position at its 2017 meeting in Berlin, with a view toward toughening it in light of recent events in Belgium and the Netherlands, according to sources familiar with that body’s deliberations.”

Sadly, the new Canadian euthanasia law permits euthanasia for people who are living with physical or psychological suffering.

Editor’s note. This appeared on Alex’s fine blog.