Belgium’s euthanasia law criticized at UN Human Rights Council

Editor’s note. This update was posted on May 7, 2021 by ADF International and reposted by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

Geneva (May 7, 2021) – Belgium has been challenged on the human rights implications of its euthanasia law at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland this week. 

Undergoing a “Universal Periodic Review”, during which states are scrutinized on their human rights record and called to consider reforms, various states urged the government to improve treatment of the elderly and of persons with disabilities. Since legalization in 2002, the country has experienced a hundredfold increase in registered euthanasia deaths. In February 2014, the law was expanded to enable doctors to end the lives of children of any age.

Said Giorgio Mazzoli, UN legal officer for ADF International, Geneva, “A fair and just society cares for its most vulnerable. International law protects everyone’s inherent right to life and requires countries to protect the dignity and lives of all people, rather than help ending them. Sadly, over the years, we have seen Belgium’s euthanasia law spiral out of control. In one case, the life of a 23-year-old female was tragically ended by euthanasia due to her battle with mental health issues. There is nothing progressive about a government that refuses to provide care and support to those who need it most. We urge the Belgian government to accept the recommendations it has received on this matter: bring an end to euthanasia and redirect resources into improving palliative care for those reaching the natural end of their lives.”

Haiti, Egypt and Bangladesh amongst those to raise concerns for Belgium’s vulnerable

The World Medical Association has consistently and categorically rejected the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide as being unethical. The act has long been associated with discriminatory attitudes against those who are elderly or disabled. In 2017, almost 20% of deaths by euthanasia in Belgium were carried out on patients displaying symptoms common with aging.

Bangladesh was among those to raise concerns, asking that the Belgian government commit to “protect and promote the right of life of all people until natural death, without discrimination on the basis of age, disability or any other grounds.”

Additionally, Haiti urged the government to “ensure that patients receive palliative care of high quality.”

Egypt, in its general remarks, noted specific concerns about the legality of euthanasia being in violation of human rights treaties which affirm and protect every human being’s inherent right to life.

Case against Belgium’s euthanasia law pending at Europe’s top court

Meanwhile, Belgium is being forced to defend its euthanasia law at the European Court of Human Rights. Human rights group ADF International is supporting the case of Tom Mortier, who is challenging the current legal situation after having lost his mother to the lethal procedure in 2012.

“The big problem in our society is that apparently we have lost the meaning of taking care of each other,” said Tom Mortier.

“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. I found out a day later when I was contacted by the hospital, asking me to take care of the practicalities,” he continued.

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.’ Tom’s mother was physically healthy, and her treating psychiatrist of more than 20 years did not believe that she satisfied the legal requirements of the Belgian euthanasia law. Nonetheless, she was euthanized in 2012 by an oncologist with no known psychiatric qualifications.

The same doctor who euthanized Tom’s mother co-chairs the Federal Commission which reviews euthanasia cases to ensure the law has been respected. He also leads a pro-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 voted “unanimously” to approve the euthanasia in this case.

The case, which now sits before the top European court, has the potential to set a precedent for euthanasia laws across Europe. The Court’s decision could affect more than 820 million Europeans across the 47 Council of Europe Member States subject to its rulings.

“The slippery slope is on full public display in Belgium, and we see the tragic consequences in this case. According to the most recent government report, more than six people per day are euthanized in this way, and that may yet be the tip of the iceberg. The figures expose the truth that, once these laws are passed, the impact of euthanasia cannot be controlled. Belgium has set itself on a trajectory that, at best, implicitly tells the most vulnerable that their lives are not worth living,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of Advocacy for ADF International, who represents Tom Mortier before the Court.