Are cracks appearing in Belgians’ attitude on euthanasia?

Dr Wim Distelmans     

A second official complaint has been filed against the chairman of the Belgium committee which regulates euthanasia for euthanasing a woman suffering from depression. Her 20-year-old daughter has spoken to the press, asking how her mother could possibly benefit from euthanasia if she had never been treated properly for depression.

Wim Distelmans, an oncologist and campaigner for euthanasia rights, has responded that "This is very frustrating for me, but I can not respond to this kind of stories in the press … because otherwise I would violate privacy laws and professional ethics."

The complaints have placed Distelmans in an awkward position, as he is not only Belgium’s leading practitioner of euthanasia and its leading spruiker, but also chairman of the Commission Fédérale de Contrôle et d’évaluation de L’euthanasie.

The first complaint was lodged earlier this year by Dr Tom Mortier, a chemistry lecturer, about the death of his mother, Godelieva De Troyer, in 2012. In both cases, Dr Distelmans was approached by a woman who asked for euthanasia to escape the suffering of acute depression. The relatives were not contacted until after the woman had passed away.  

Mortier’s lawyer, Samuel Vinck, told the Belgian media: “My client has good reason to believe that the law was not correctly applied in the euthanasia of his mother.”

Distelmans contends that he follows the letter of the law – which does not require patients to notify relatives – when he euthanases people. However, the two cases have rattled the good impression that many Belgians have of their euthanasia law. Until now the media has highlighted cases of elderly people who are euthanased with their families’ agreement and warm support. For the first time a crack has appeared in this consensus.

"All we can say right now is that it's not bad that the case will be heard by the court," said a spokesman for UZ Brussels, the hospital where Dr Distelmans works. "The story is constantly popping up in the media, and that's not a good thing, for any of them. The court must clear the air once and for all.”

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