Belgian euthanasia under scrutiny in European Court of Human Rights

Did one of the leading right-to-die doctors ignore the law?

By Michael Cook 

On April 19, 2012, a 64-year-old Belgian woman named Godelieva de Troyer was euthanised. For the doctor, Wim Distelmans, it was probably just another case. For her son, Tom Mortier, a chemistry lecturer, it came as a terrible shock. He only found out on the day after her death.

Eventually he took legal action, accusing Distelmans of violating Belgium’s own law on euthanasia. The case is now being considered by the European Court of Human Rights. As part of the legal proceedings, the Belgian government was forced to submit a four-page form which documents Godelieva de Troyer’s case.

It has only come to light now, leaked to the Italian website Tempi.

Although euthanasia is legal in Belgium, it is not open slather [freedom to act without restraint]. It is regulated by a 2002 law which requires certain steps to be fulfilled so that doctors can kill people legally.

In this case, “euthanasia registration form” 607/12 was filled out and submitted to the Euthanasia Control Commission on June 20, 2012.

There were several glaring irregularities in this process.

First, Article 5 of the Euthanasia Act specifies that the form must be completed and submitted within four working days after the death. Form 607/12 was submitted about two months late.

Second, the euthanising doctor is supposed to consult two other doctors who must be independent of each other and of the patient.

In this case, the first of these two doctors was a palliative care doctor belonging to LEIF (the End of Life Information Forum), a pro-euthanasia organization. The president of LEIF is (and was) Wim Distelmans. The second doctor, a psychiatrist, also belonged to LEIF. In other words, the doctors were not independent.

Nor were they independent of the patient. Before she died Godelieva de Troyer made a bank transfer of 2,500 Euros with a note: “Thanks to the LEIF staff.”

Third, the consultation with the psychiatrist took place on January 17, a month before the woman made her initial request for euthanasia. The consultation was supposed to take place after Distelmans had seen her.

Fourth, the law specifies that the attending physician must “be certain of the patient’s constant physical or mental suffering and of the durable nature of his/her request. To this end, the physician has several conversations with the patient spread out over a reasonable period of time.”

 In this case, the interval between the request and the death was only 58 days – far too little for a woman suffering from complex and long-standing depression. The only treatment that Distelmans gave her was the lethal injection.

Fifth, the Belgian government has told the ECHR that if a member of the Commission were ever involved in a particular case, he should recuse himself from reviewing it. However, it also declared that the decision of the Commission had been “unanimous” in the case of Godelieva de Troyer. In other words, Distelmans appears to have voted to approve his own decision. 

Sixth, the form stated that “all treatment attempts have been exhausted. The unbearable psychological suffering can no longer be cured.” However, Godelieva de Troyer’s diary shows that she had positive thoughts about her grandchildren at the time around her death.

Mortier’s attorney Robert Clarke, of the ADF International legal group, says that “the Belgian government has until September to present further arguments, then the Court will decide. The sentence is expected to arrive in 6 to 12 months. 

Regardless of what it may say, it is clear that Belgium has not protected de Troyer’s right to life, that the law on euthanasia has been violated and that the Audit Commission does not act independently.”

It will be interesting to see what the ECHR decides. According to an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Dr. Distelmans has been “responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people.” (Actually, that was his tally in 2014, six years ago. Who knows how many more there are now?) 

In other jurisdictions, it might be possible for the case of Godelieva de Troyer to force a re-examination of those hundreds of cases in which Distelmans was literally jury, judge, and executioner.

If the decision goes against Distelmans, it will give the Belgian establishment a well-deserved shake-up. Distelmans is not a rogue doctor, but a public figure festooned with medals.

In 2003 he was awarded the Ark Prize of the Free Word for his commitment to promoting euthanasia; in 2010 the Dwaallicht Prize for “for his ethical vigilance and humane involvement as a pioneer for the recognition of palliative care and his fight for the right to euthanasia”; in 2013, a grant of 150,000 Euros from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel for his commitment to a dignified end of life; in 2015, the Prize for Liberal Humanism; and in 2016, a medal of honour for commitment to euthanasia.

If it turns out that Distelmans has ignored the law that he has overseen for so many years, surely Belgians will need to do some serious soul-searching.

Editor’s note. This appeared at Mercatornet and is reposted with permission.