Battle lines drawn in Belgium over conscience

Family set to sue over 'non-euthanasia' in Catholic aged care home. 

Over recent weeks the issue of conscientious objection, or the 'conscience clause' in the Belgian euthanasia law has been brought into the spotlight by the assertion by the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, that he has the right to refuse Catholic hospitals and aged care facilities to co-operate with euthanasia.

Euthanasia advocates both in academia and in the medical profession have bristled at the suggestion that institutions might say 'non' with many displaying a distinct and disturbing lack of understanding about the status of the 14 year old statute that allows doctors to kill their patients.

The Belgian law clearly provides a conscientious 'out' for doctors and others assisting in a euthanasia but it is otherwise silent about institutions. Some suggest that the extension to institutions such as a church ae implied while others suggest, dubiously to my thinking, that the silence suggests otherwise.

While, initially at least, this seemed like very much like an academic exercise with no-one really expecting the new bishop to force a show down. But a showdown was already in the making.

Various Belgian news outlets, today, are running with a story about a refusal by a Catholic nursing home to allow a doctor onto their premises to perform euthanasia. According to reports, the 74-year-old woman was terminally ill with metastatic cancer and living in the St. Augustine residential care centre in Diest.

The process of requesting euthanasia began in 2011 and progressed for six months before St. Augustine's management refused access supposedly only days before the euthanasia was to take place. The various stories do not say whether or not the facility was formally aware of the process, however the family of the woman say that, after initially believing that the matter was simply a misunderstanding, they arranged for the woman to be transported to a private residence where the death took place. The family are claiming that the facility caused additional psychological and physical suffering for their mother.

The matter is listed to be heard in a civic court in Leuven in April - four and a half years after the death and after the matter had already been postponed twice before; why, we are not told.

I smell a rat. This issue precedes the current controversy but it does not take a cynic to question why, all-of-a-sudden, a matter that has twice been suspended over a death that took place over four years ago where the woman got what she wanted, is suddenly before the media and the courts?

If that were not enough to have any conspiracy theorist salivating, the lawyer for the woman's family, Sylvie Tack, has a longstanding professional relationship to Belgian euthanasia supremo, Wim Distelmans and his Life Ending Information Network (LEIF) being lecturer, speaker and part of their peer review panel. Not a 'hanging-offence' certainly, but enough to question which was the horse and which the cart.

Overall, it may well be that Archbishop De Kesel was well aware of this pending case when he made his pre-Christmas declaration. If so, then full marks to him. As we observed earlier, it seems likely now that the courts may well determine the interpretation of Article 14 of the Belgian law.

It does not seem likely that the complaint by the woman's family is principally about her treatment or any recompense or restitution for 'suffering or loss'. As their lawyer told De Morgen: "The new Act states that doctors and staff who are involved in the euthanasia, can have conscientious objection. But the health care institution itself should not interfere with it themselves."

Make no mistake: if ever there was going to be a test case, this is it. Rightly or wrongly, Belgian's euthanasia supremos have always seen the Catholic Church and its influence as the last bulwark standing against them. I have heard them say as much personally. Perhaps, ironically, they also see Catholicism as the last voice of conscience - to which they clearly object.

See also:
Brussels Archbishop draws new ethical battle lines on euthanasia.
Philosophies in collision in Belgian euthanasia law.