Belgium prisoner euthanasia - when words and oaths lose their meaning

Belgium prisoner euthanasia - when words and oaths lose their meaning.The invocation of the Oath attributed to Hippocrates as a reason why doctors should not be involved in either directly killing a patient or in providing them with counsel towards or the means to commit suicide is not the lay-down-misere that it perhaps once was. Raising the ancient oath will be swiftly met by the assertion that doctors don't take that oath anymore. This is not to say that the intentions of Hippocrates and medical associations ever since that a doctor should not kill nor be involved in providing for a person to kill themselves is redundant. Not at all. But the appeal to an historic and binding context and to a tradition that re-enforced natural human rights from antiquity just doesn't seem to cut it in our post-modern world. Nothing new here in reality - the lack of critical thought and the lack of a natural pause to consider whether or not the rhetoric drip fed to us by an uncritical and sometimes pro-change media can be anything other than right is something that those of an alternate view lament.How else can we account for the abuse of our language and of concepts and human rights? When polls suggest that the majority of any surveyed group can accept that concepts like compassion and human dignity can embrace killing, then we know that there's a problem.Of course it is not only in the realm of discussions about euthanasia that we find examples of this lack of connection between concepts, laws and taboos and debate in the public square. And it is not progress that we eschew here but rather the ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of history and of the reasons why earlier generations saw things differently.GK Chesterton recognised this problem in his book Orthodoxy, published over a 100 years ago: 

"Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father."

In as much as I have been a good parent to my children, I have shown them by example what I have experienced of what philosophers call 'the good life' as I have learnt it and as it has been passed to me from my parents. Like every parent, my hope is that they, in turn, will build upon that foundation.

This 'democracy of the dead' as Chesterton called it, is really common sense. That such 'common sense' is codified in law, in literature, in history and in this last century, in human rights conventions that speak to us from 'beyond the grave' as it were should be the foundation of progress. Ignoring it in favour of the opinions of the 'arrogant oligarchy' is like a child who ignores the ministrations of his or her parents or, worse still, the child who has not had the benefit of such formation at all.

The populous is being treated as little more than an intellectual 'blank slate' upon which those who have influence over the public square can easily write their slogans again and again until they almost become indelible 'Holy Writ'. There's no other way of explaining the results of repeated polls on people's attitudes to euthanasia where such polls provide little or no additional information that might assist an individual to consider an alternate view. Words and concepts are powerful. We should not be surprised that any single poll question that equates compassion with a soft euphemism for killing will return a positive result. We all want to be compassionate, right?

Examples of the abandonment of any reasonable reference to tradition, history and human rights by the abuse of concepts and language don't come any clearer than the Belgian case of Frank Van Den Bleeken.

Van Den Bleeken is a serial rapist and murderer serving time in Belgian prison. I was tempted to say 'Correctional Facility' instead of prison, but that would be as cruel a misnomer as is the treatment of Van Den Bleeken by the Belgian authorities. He has been in prison for more than thirty years and has refused any option to apply for parole as he considers himself to be a 'menace to society'.

In 2010 Van Den Bleeken first applied for euthanasia claiming that he was suffering 'unbearable psychological anguish'. The root cause of this anguish has never been disclosed. Is it the conditions of his confinement, his mental state, his understanding of the depravity of his crimes or something else? We do not know.

What we do know is that the Belgian's have come in for significant criticism over many years for its poor treatment of prisoners. In Van Den Bleeken's case, it has been acknowledged that over his prison term, he has received only one short-lived treatment option and was refused a request to be moved to a treatment facility in neighbouring Holland. Even Belgium's euthanasia supremo, Dr Wim Distelmans, expressed reservations about euthanasia in such circumstances.

In September 2014 a Belgian Court accepted his plea to be euthanased and granted him the opportunity for leave to go to a hospital to be killed there. Recent reports confirmed that he will be euthanased this month, however, now this will be done in the prison infirmary.

And so Van Den Bleeken had asked the Belgian Courts to uphold his 'right' to euthanasia claiming that he qualified under the Belgian euthanasia law, was capable of making such a decision and that his request was "voluntary, considered and repeated". That euthanasia is considered a 'right' in Belgium in the 12 and more years since their law was passed is acknowledged by the weight of evidence and has now been confirmed by the courts. That his appeal is 'considered and repeated' is self-evident. But Voluntary? Really?

Who are the Belgian's trying to kid here? Thirty plus years of incarceration in a penal system criticised as inhumane and without any serious attempt at rehabilitation via treatment - and somehow this neglected individual had choices? There's nothing voluntary where there's no clear alternative.

But, you see, evoking the concept of 'voluntary', like the abuse of 'compassion' and 'dignity', is a salve promoted to soften any public reservations about euthanasia in the same way that 'safeguards' are supposed to make us feel less concerned about doctors killing people. "It's voluntary; no-one will be forced into it!" And so, Van Den Bleeken has 'volunteered' to die and, like obedient little lemmings we're supposed to simply nod in recognition of Van Den Bleeken's right to say so, as if there were no other human rights considerations screaming out to be heard to the contrary.

Even a cursory glance at how voluntary assent is treated in law in western democracies makes the assumption of voluntariness in euthanasia law entirely suspect. The idea of full disclosure and fully informed consent has risen alongside the development of principles of autonomy in recent decades. It provides a defence in law where a voluntary party to an agreement could justifiably claim that they had not made aware of the full consequences and risks of entering into a contract. Informed consent is an accepted standard in everything from a mortgage to a medical therapy or operation. As such, evidence of compliance to this standard is also a defence. But there's nothing of that in the operation of euthanasia.

Nary a formal contract, there's no redress for the deceased party and no bonafide proof that euthanasia was freely entered into with full consent and absent any pressure or coercion. All a court could ever determine might be the absence of anything to indicate coercion or lack of disclosure - which is not the same thing as proving that it never took place.

And where are the objections from the pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide lobby who claim to champion human rights? Just like at the time of the Belgian debate on euthanasia for children they are either silent or supportive of Van Den Bleeken's pending euthanasia death. That the circumstances of Van Den Bleeken's incarceration are agreed by all observers to be 'cruel and unusual punishment' does not for one moment create a logical path to his destruction. It screams out for justice and the fair treatment of all of Belgium's prisoner population, not for the bleeding heart rhetoric that would use this tragic case to further a macabre cause.

That Belgium rejected capital punishment as recently as 1996 cannot escape this scrutiny. Whereas euthanasia law is often referred to as state-sanctioned killing in observation that euthanasia law is the state allowing euthanasia to occur without legal penalty, this, to my knowledge, is the first time any state has intervened directly to allow a particular case. Even in The Netherlands under judicial fiat prior to their euthanasia laws in 2001, the court-made judgements set precedents only in reviewing cases where the euthanasia act had already occurred. This therefore is a new development.

That, according to reports, Van Den Bleeken is now to be killed inside his prison rather than being given leave to go to a hospital adds more weight to the 'capital-punishment-by-the-back-door' argument. At the very least it is Belgium burying its problems.

And yet Van Den Bleeken's death will raise little more than passing media interest. It will stand in stark relief to the media saturation of the Brittany Maynard story and her assisted suicide last year.

For all that was wrong with the Maynard case it at least had the semblance of an autonomous decision. Van Den Bleeken's situation is a compounding set of abuses of human rights, yet I doubt that we'll see any human rights organisations lining up to champion an appeal on his behalf.

It's little more than 60 years since the United Nations codified our natural human rights into a document that was designed to ensure that the atrocities of the world wars and other conflicts never happened again. Such a short time for two of Europe's nation states so affected by those conflicts to have forgotten so comprehensively the lessons of what happens when a country forgets its basic duty to protect its own.

see also:

Is Belgium restoring the death sentence?
Belgian rapist demands euthanasia for psychological pain.
The unfolding logic of euthanasia