Belgium’s “Pope of euthanasia”

One of the leading figures in the euthanasia debate is Belgian oncologist Wim Distelmans. Because of the language barrier, he is an unfamiliar figure in the English-speaking world. But Canada’s National Post recently profiled him. it is essential reading for anyone who takes the issue seriously. Here are a few excerpts.

‘He said he has not performed a single euthanasia that he has questioned after the fact. “If I hesitate for any reason, I don’t perform euthanasia,” he said. “That is very simple. So for my peace of mind, there is no problem.”

‘His mind is perhaps also put at ease by the fact that he is co-chairman of the federal commission charged with reviewing — after the fact — whether euthanasia cases performed in Belgium adhered to the legal criteria. In 11 years of existence, all with Dr. Distelmans as co-chairman, the commission has not referred a single case to prosecutors for study. To critics, including one leading euthanasia advocate, Dr. Distelmans has too much influence. “He wants a little too much to be the Pope of euthanasia in Belgium, and that’s not a good thing,” said Marc Van Hoey, a physician and president of the Flemish death-with-dignity group known as RWS.

‘Chris Gastmans, a professor of medical ethics at the Catholic University of Leuven, said it is dangerous to have so much power concentrated in one person…

‘Dr. Distelmans countered that some of the control commission’s 16 members oppose euthanasia, and he is not in a position to dictate decisions. But the outcome of its last meeting is striking. Before meeting, members receive a thick stack of confidential forms providing the attending physician’s explanation for each euthanasia. Among the 172 cases up for review — just over a month’s worth — was the Sept. 30 death of Mr. Verhelst, the transsexual whose story was reported around the world and cited by critics as an example of euthanasia run amok. On the committee, no one batted an eye.

‘“The case of Nathan Verhelst, for instance, who met all the conditions of the law, we didn’t discuss about the case for one minute. It was just passed like that,” Dr. Distelmans said. “We already have a tradition of 10 years. Should Nathan’s case have been 10 years ago, maybe we would have discussed some time about the case. Now, it’s like [just] another one.”

‘As even the most extreme cases become commonplace, Dr. Distelmans seeks to push the envelope further. At the moment, “advanced declarations” requesting euthanasia can only be acted upon if a patient falls into an irreversible coma. Dr. Distelmans said people should be able to request euthanasia in the event that they develop dementia. He also argued that minors, currently forbidden from receiving euthanasia, should be eligible if they possess the intellectual maturity to make their own decisions. “A guy of 16 or 17, why should he have to wait until he’s 18 to be able to ask for euthanasia?” he asked.’

This article is published by Michael Cook and 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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