Not enough doctors to staff Belgium’s euthanasia commission

Belgium’s Federal Evaluation and Control Commission for Euthanasia has lost its mandate after failing to find replacements for vacancies on its executive committee. 

The Commission, set up in September 2002 to oversee the implementation of new euthanasia legislation, has an executive composed of 16 members with expertise in the area, including eight doctors (four of whom must be university professors). In addition, there are another 16 alternate members. Of the 32 total members, seven places are vacant. A spokesperson for the organization said that they were having particular difficulty finding medical academics to sit on the committee.

A spokesperson for the existing committee said it would act as an “interim government” until replacements are found.

It appears that the Commission is being strangled by diversity requirements set out in the legislation. (See Article 7 of the law). Eight must be French-speaking; eight Flemish-speaking. Each of these groups must be roughly gender-balanced and various philosophical positions must be represented.  

Ethical diversity must be particularly problematic: it is unlikely that sceptics of euthanasia would ever agree to sit on a committee which rubberstamps completed cases.

But prospective members are also reluctant to take on an ever-increasing workload.  According to the latest statistics, reported cases of euthanasia have increased in Belgium by 90% in three years (from 953 in 2010 to 1807 in 2013).  

“They told me that there were only a few dozen dossiers a month to process. In fact, today there is an average of 200 cases, of which 80 to 90% are in Dutch, to be read and prepared before the Commission meets on each month on a Thursday at 5pm,"says Claire Nouwynck , an oncologist at the Erasmus Hospital who recently resigned.

It was intended that the Commission should investigate cases of euthanasia where the doctors were suspected of misconduct. In practice members are given only limited information and must vote if they are to request further details from physicians.

Since critics of Belgium’s euthanasia law in other countries, especially the Anglophone world, but even at home, constantly complain that legal medical killing is out of control, it is no small embarrassment for the grandly-named Federal Evaluation and Control Commission to be unable to control itself.   

Earlier this week, the Minister for Health, Maggie De Block, gave her word in Parliament that the wheels were turning smoothly and that Belgians had nothing to fear from illegal euthanasia – even though news of the vacancies had already emerged in the press. The emollient platitudes of the minister do not inspire much confidence that anyone really knows what is going on. 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Belgium, euthanasia

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