By Wesley J. Smith
Wonder of wonders: Belgium is prosecuting three doctors for illegal euthanasia. After thirty-eight-year-old Tine Nys received a lethal injection, family members reported the doctors—one a psychiatrist—to authorities. They claim Nys’s lethal injection violated the guidelines that doctors are supposed to follow under Belgium’s euthanasia laws.
Their allegations are disturbing. Nys had been diagnosed with autism a few months prior to her death. In her younger years she suffered from a depressive disorder and attempted to commit suicide. But family members report that she had not required treatment for many years and really wanted to die because of a broken romantic relationship. Law enforcement agreed that Nys was not suffering from a “serious and incurable” disorder—which euthanasia patients must be experiencing to be legally eligible for euthanasia.
According to the media, this case demonstrates that Belgium is serious about maintaining strict limits on euthanasia. But “strict” and “limits” are oxymoronic concepts when it comes to Belgian doctors killing their patients. It should be distressing that this is one of the only efforts being made to hold doctors accountable when so many other equally egregious cases have been allowed to slide by the authorities without any criminal or administrative actions taken.
Euthanasia was legalized in Belgium in 2002, amid the usual blithe assurances that robust limitations would prevent abuse. Those promises were false. Since the law went into effect, doctors have terminated not only physically sick patients, but also people with disabilities, the despairing elderly, and the mentally ill. Even children as young as nine have been euthanized. The bodies of the mentally ill and people with progressive physical disabilities are then sometimes used for organ harvesting. Many of those killed would have lived for years but for euthanasia. Indeed, case after abusive case has been reliably reported in the media and by Belgian euthanasia authorities—all without a single prosecution. The following cases are just a sampling.
There have been several reported cases of elderly married couples being killed together. The first was in 2011—neither member of the couple was seriously impaired and their joint euthanasia was carried out with the full knowledge and apparent approval of their community. They even made their final arrangements at the local mortuary before being lethally injected.
One case stands out for its heartlessness. A still-healthy couple “feared the future.” They were euthanized together, supported by their children. The death doctor was even procured by their son, who told the Daily Mail that his parents’ deaths was “the best solution,” since caring for them properly would be “impossible.” Decent societies consider joint suicides by elderly couples to be tragic. In Belgium, apparently, they are deemed a legitimate solution to the problems associated with elder care.
“Ann G.” was a suicidal anorexia patient who publicly accused her previous psychiatrist of persuading her into sexual relations with him. When the psychiatrist—who admitted the charge—was not severely disciplined, Ann became so despondent she went to a second psychiatrist for euthanasia. She died at age forty-four. In a bitter irony, after her death, the first psychiatrist was professionally disciplined for abusing her.
Imagine you are at work, going about your day. The phone rings. You pick up and the voice on the other end informs you he works for a hospital morgue which has your mother’s body. “What do you mean you have my mother’s body!” you exclaim. “She was just euthanized today,” the voice answers. “What should we do with the body?” That happened in 2012 to Belgian chemist Tom Mortier. He described the emotional trauma he experienced at an anti-euthanasia conference I attended in 2014. His mother, Godelieva De Troyer, had been grappling most of her life with chronic depression—which can constitute legal grounds for euthanasia in Belgium. But here’s the kicker. She wasn’t killed by her psychiatrist, who could have—under the law—determined she was incurable. Rather, she was killed by Dr. William Distelmans, an oncologist known for his willingness to euthanize people who have not been his patients previou
Distelmans also euthanized a transgender man who was distraught over a botched sex-change surgery. From the Daily Mail story:
A Belgian transsexual has chosen to die by euthanasia after a botched sex change operation to complete his transformation into a man left him a ‘monster.’ Nathan Verhelst, 44, died yesterday afternoon after being allowed to have his life ended on the grounds of “unbearable psychological suffering.” . . . In the hours before his death he told Belgium’s Het Laatse Nieuws: “I was ready to celebrate my new birth. But when I looked in the mirror, I was disgusted with myself.”
Was Verhelst treated for his despair by a proper mental health professional? Was he given help in his distress? No. He was killed by a cancer specialist.
The cases I have highlighted here—there are many others—illustrate the watery nature of the “strict guidelines” in Belgium. These people—who were nowhere near close to death—were reported on, so it isn’t as if the authorities were unaware. Yet none of their killers has been charged criminally, as has now happened in the Nys case.
A conviction in the Nys case could blunt the drive for ever-expanding euthanasia in Belgium. The case seems clear cut. But that doesn’t mean much in the culture of death. I will frankly be pleasantly surprised if there is a conviction.
The recent prosecution of a euthanasia doctor in the Netherlands, where doctor-administered death is also legal, illustrates why I am so cynical. A dementia patient, while still competent, asked her doctor to euthanize her when incapacitated. But she also instructed that she be allowed to say when. Eventually, without her consent, her family and doctor decided that her time had come. The doctor drugged the woman’s coffee and, once she was asleep, began the lethal injection procedure. But the patient awakened unexpectedly and fought against being killed. Rather than stopping, the doctor instructed the family to hold the struggling woman down while she completed the homicide.
This would seem to be a clear-cut case of involuntary euthanasia, which constitutes murder under Dutch law. But a court not only exonerated the doctor, but also praised her for acting in the “best interests” of the patient. In other words, the judge ruled that the struggling patient no longer had the mental capacity to want to live.
A culture’s collective mindset about the meaning and importance of human life becomes distorted when euthanasia is legal. Soon, ending suffering becomes more important than protecting the lives of the vulnerable, making it increasingly difficult to restrict euthanasia and assisted suicide to extreme cases—those for which advocates falsely promise it is to be reserved. The rare prosecutions of clear abuses, most of which are unsuccessful, accelerate this process. There is nothing like praising with faint damnation to give suicidal people moral permission to have their lives ended, while ensuring that death doctors believe they have the law’s approval to accommodate the darkest desires of society’s most despairing people.
Editor’s note. This appeared at First Things and is reposted with the author’s permission.