Three Belgian doctors charged with unlawful euthanasia in a landmark trial were acquitted in the wee hours of Friday morning. When the 12-member jury delivered the verdict after eight hours of deliberation, the courtroom erupted in applause and cheers.
The case made headlines in Belgium and around the world because it was the first time that doctors had been charged with a violation of the controversial euthanasia law since it was passed in 2002.
The patient, Tine Nys, was a 38-year-old woman with a troubled past, including estrangement from her family, suicide attempts, an abortion, and prostitution. She died on 27 April 2010 surrounded by her family.
Her sisters – who did not oppose euthanasia in principle – filed a complaint. They believed that she was not incurably ill, a condition for legal euthanasia, but merely depressed from the stress of a failed relationship. She had also recently been diagnosed with autism.
The jury found that the psychiatrist, Godelieve Thienpont, had not erred in recommending euthanasia because Tine’s suffering really was incurable; that her family doctor, Frank D., did not really sign off on her death; and that there were reasonable doubts about the actions of the doctor who gave the lethal injection, Joris Van Hove.
The trial gave the lawyer for Van Hove, Walter Van Steenbrugge, ample opportunity to exhibit impressive rhetorical skills. “The only good thing that can come out of this,” he told the jury, “is that Tine Nys becomes the Joan of Arc of euthanasia. I say this with love in my heart: posthumously fulfil her wish and acquit these doctors."
Earlier on, he managed to turn the trial of the three doctors into an indictment of the Catholic Church. “The Roman Catholic church wanted and got a chilling effect,” he declared. He also discovered that the lawyer representing the family, Fernand Keuleneer, who has close ties with the Church, had served on the Federal euthanasia evaluation committee when the case of Tine Nys was studied. He accused him of being a Catholic mole on the euthanasia commission, which was indignantly denied by Keuleneer.
It may be a sign of underground cultural tension in Belgium that the lawyer for the family questioned the religious affiliation of another witness, Paul Cosyns, a psychiatrist. Joris Van Cauter, lawyer for the Nys family, asked dramatically: "Can Paul Cosyns confirm that he is grandmaster of the regular Grand Lodge of Belgium?" It turned out that Professor Cosyns had been the grandmaster from 1999 to 2002, but that line of questioning went nowhere.
Ultimately, it seems, it was the euthanasia law itself which was on trial. The defence emphasised that the doctors were motivated by mercy and that they had merely erred in their paperwork. The prosecution insisted that doctors are required to abide by the law and that Tine was not seriously ill.
“The euthanasia law makes no distinction between the basic conditions and the procedural conditions,” argued prosecuting lawyer Francis Clarysse. “The legislator chose it that way. (...) So one condition is enough, but six conditions have been violated here. (...) The argument of the defence that one can kill a person if he is in good faith is legal nonsense. They have put the will of their patient above the law and their own oath."
Fernand Keuleneer was critical of the implications of the verdict. “There is no check by the euthanasia committee and no judicial check is now possible. Euthanasia has become a matter of course, a generalized right to suicide. The will of the individual becomes the only law.”
Van Steenbrugge was delighted at the result. He said that a conviction would have set a dangerous precedent in Belgium, making many doctors reluctant to perform euthanasia. “There was a lot at stake,” he said, “not only for Belgium but for Europe in general.”
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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