Another speed bump for Belgian euthanasia

The complications of euthanasia keep bubbling away in Belgium. The latest scandal is the euthanasia of a 44-year-old woman because of unbearable mental suffering from anorexia nervosa. Only a handful of these women ask for euthanasia each year and they normally have other psychiatric issues as well.

As complicated as this may sound, this particular woman’s demise is even more complicated. Ann G. appeared on Terzake, a TV current affairs program, last year accusing her psychiatrist of having had sexual relations with her – and a number of other patients. A few months later she was dead.

Walter Vandereycken was no ordinary psychiatrist. Apart from being a sexologist, he was an international expert on anorexia (with a textbook published in English). Apparently he had been abusing patients for years; colleagues suspected, but no one blew the whistle.

The rector of the Catholic University of Leuven (KULeuven), where Dr Vandereycken was a professor, suspended him after the psychiatrist admitted his misdeeds in a TV interview. "The facts are dreadful and I don't understand how this didn't come out earlier and how somebody with an international reputation did this. It reminds me of the affair involving the former Bishop of Bruges. Again it's about a public figure who abused his power in a back room,” said Professor Mark Waer.

According to Terzake, this was not an isolated case. (Link to program, in Dutch.)

Back to Ann G.

Ann G. was clearly a complex woman. As early as 2007, she told journalist Kristien Hemmerechts that she wanted to commit suicide. When she appeared on the program, she had apparently already requested euthanasia. Going public gave her a brief respite from "the cancer in her head". However, she was bitterly disappointed that the man who had victimised her was not severely disciplined. Then, overseen by a kindly new psychiatrist, she exercised her option.

Walter Vandereycken’s case is still under review by the authorities. However, some people have protested that he is being unfairly stigmatised over Ann G.’s death. 

A cynic might suggest that Belgian psychiatrists are insensitive to conflicts of interest. One psychiatrist tips a sick woman over the edge; another helps to ensure that she will not be testifying in court against him. Dr Vandereycken is back at work seeing private patients; Ann G. is dead. But Belgians must be getting used to this sort of thing. 

This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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