De Standaard newspaper is reporting today that, for the very first time since its inception in October 2002, the Belgian Euthanasia Commission has referred a reported euthanasia case to the judiciary for review.
The case in question is well known as it was recorded by the Australian SBS TV Network reporter, Brett Mason, in a Dateline documentary aired in Australia in September. As Mason reported:
"Simona de Moor is a physically healthy 85-year-old. She lives in a care home in Antwerp, but is still active and on no medication.
However, she's been unable to accept the death of her daughter Vivian from a heart attack three months earlier, and sees no reason to go on."
De Standaard reports:
"The doctor in question has not complied with the conditions imposed by the law, ruled the 16 members on Tuesday unanimously. Palliative physician and co-chair of the Committee Wim Distelmans confirmed the news to the newspaper. "If there is any doubt about the terms, we must continue to court."
The doctor in question is Marc Van Hoey, also chairman of the association "Right to die with dignity." He applied to euthanasia on Simona De Moor, a 85-year-old woman who died on June 22 of this year in Antwerp."
Van Hoey is no stranger to the controversies associated with the application of Belgium's euthansia laws. in 2013, in an interview for the Canadian National Post newspaper, he was candid in his assessment of the law and his approach to it:
"Marc Van Hoey, a physician who performs euthanasia and is head of the Flemish death-with-dignity association, said there has been a shift toward euthanasia of what he called the high elderly. "Recently I went to see a lady of 95 years old, sitting in a nursing home all by herself. All her friends and family had died. The only people she had good contact with were the nursing team. She said every evening she goes to bed, she hopes, 'Don't let me wake up any more,' " he said. He told her she was a candidate for euthanasia.
"Why do I say that? Because maybe if you say to that kind of person, 'We are not going to give you euthanasia,' they open the window on the fourth floor and jump down. And that's traumatic for everyone."
"Dr. Van Hoey is remarkably frank about how flexible the euthanasia law is. It requires a written request for euthanasia from a patient, but it can be written on a napkin, he said. The control commission has even approved euthanasia when there was no written request, taking the doctor's word that an oral request had been made.
"Assisted suicide - when the doctor prescribes a patient lethal medication instead of administering it himself - is not legal in Belgium. But Dr. Van Hoey said he has aided the suicides of two of his patients, including one a few years ago who had been refused euthanasia. The 56-year-old businessman was half-paralyzed after a stroke and did not want to live, but he had trouble finding a psychiatrist who would approve euthanasia. Dr. Van Hoey said today he would have gone ahead and performed the euthanasia without the approval of a psychiatrist instead of surreptitiously prescribing lethal drugs. He noted that Belgian law only says a third doctor must be "consulted" if death is not imminent. "It is not said have to agree," he said."
Van Hoey is also the head of the Flemish 'right to die' association.
De Standaard says that the referral of this case to Justice was a unanimous decision of the 16 member evaluation commission on the basis that, in their conclusion, Simona de Moor was euthanased because she was 'tired of life', a category not yet allowed under the current interpretation of the Belgian law. But that is not necessarily the case.
Jacqueline Herremans, president of Belgium's francophone death-with-dignity association and a member of the control commission told the National Post in the same article (above): "Being tired of life is not an acceptable diagnosis...But if, for example, someone is afflicted with osteoarthritis, can no longer leave the rest home where she lives, is losing her eyesight, losing her hearing, in that case you have the necessary information about the person's medical condition." Having lost a spouse can also be a factor. "It sometimes enters into the consideration of suffering," she said."
Is there a valid distinction to be made here between grief at the loss of a spouse and the loss of a child? It would seem so.
But there's more to it than that. Official records and studies based on death certificates in both Belgium and Holland show that not all euthanasia deaths are reported as the law demands. In a De Standaard interview in January 2014, Dr Marc Cosyns frankly admitted, in the presence of the co-chair of the euthanasia commission, Dr Wim Distelmans, that he has never reported his own cases, as required by law. Distelman's replies" "But Marc...you cannot ignore the criminal law." And yet nothing happens.
Perhaps Dr van Hoey is guilty of two mistakes: firstly, allowing the filming of de Moor's death and, secondly, making out the official report.
Distelmans and the commission could perhaps be accused of a selective application of the law; apply an intepretation of qualification but do nothing about known cases that are not reported. The message here to Belgian doctors is clear: if you don't want any trouble, don't fill in the paperwork. This only serves to further undermine the flimsy pretence that the commission and the law are effective tools in protecting Belgian citizens.
The commission may well be making an example of Dr van Hoey for good reason, but they may just as easily be reacting to the negative sentiment arising out of the SBS Documentary and the continuing international scrutiny.
One swallow does not a summer make.