Brussels Archbishop draws new ethical battle lines on euthanasia.

"there is no free choice as there is only one choice." 

The newly installed Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Jozef De Kesel has begun his time as the leader of Belgium's Catholics in what is seen by some as a controversial manner.

Installed on the 12th of December, in one of his first interviews with the media, the new Archbishop asserted the Church's opposition to both abortion and euthanasia.

No controversy there. Like it or not, no-one will be in any doubt that De Kesel was simply stressing the 'party-line', as it were. What is controversial, though it should not be so, is that De Kesel stressed that Catholic hospitals and care institutions have the right to refuse to co-operate with both euthanasia and abortion.

This extends to nursing homes and aged care facilities in respect to euthanasia. Many hospitals and institutes for the care of the aging in Belgium are run, if not also owned, by the Catholic Church. Not that De Kesel's assertion reflects the current practice as Professor Willem Lemmens notes (below).

Yet this 'revelation' by De Kesel has put the political classes and euthanasia supporters in the medical profession in a tail spin.

Ethics Professor Willem Lemmens summarizes the situation:

'All major so-called 'Catholic' care facilities and hospitals in Flanders have held in recent years guidelines and agreements that allow euthanasia, either at their own institution or after referral. Respect for the individual patient and doctor is here indeed central.

'The reactions to the reflection of the archbishop therefore raises questions. Moral values, defend and propagate, as a group, is essential for an open society. And just as well it is a right as citizens to unite around an ideal of life care where you take away from the whole argument about the "right to euthanasia".'

Lemmens and others note that, in spite of the rhetoric, euthanasia is not legal in Belgium, the 2002 statute simply creating a defence in law for an act of euthanasia that complies with that law. Fernand Keuleneer, a lawyer and alternate member of the Euthanasia Evaluation Commission for 10 years agrees, adding that, "It is wrong to argue that the law requires Catholic hospitals to apply euthanasia."

"The law does not create a subjective, let alone fundamental right to euthanasia, but is limited to non-criminalization of doctors who perform euthanasia in legal terms.

"The legislator has decided - rightly in my view - that proper medical supervision at the end of life does not necessarily includes the possibility of euthanasia." Keuleneer told the Belgian press.

Co-chair of the Euthanasia Evaluation Commission, Dr Wim Distelmans, has made an irrational attack against the Archbishop in lock-step with a number of Belgian MPs. The Knack reports:

"The life of Catholic institutions and subsidies must follow the law," comments Jean-Jacques De Gucht (Flemish liberal).

'The political parties have no problem that De Kesel is an opponent of euthanasia or abortion, "but he makes a serious fallacy by raising the level of institutions," said Valerie Van Peel (N-VA) to Het Nieuwsblad. "An individual physician cannot be compelled to perform euthanasia, but each institution has to ensure that patients who qualify do get the opportunity."'

Distelmans adds: "The majority of hospitals and residential care homes in Flanders is still a Catholic today. If there the right to euthanasia is rejected, then that's problematic." That he appears not to understand the law whilst leading the commission charged with compliance duties in respect to that same law is mind-numbing. The reality, I suspect, is that Distelmans, like Belgians and Netherlanders generally, have accepted that a law that allows for people to be killed - regardless of the subtleties of that law - is seen as a right. That progression is simply logic.

However, if it were a 'right'; that is to say: a genuine human right (as Distelmans seems to suggest) then no institution should be able to refuse to co-operate.

Belgian Senator, Steven Vanackere, a supporter of the law writing in De Morgen, nevertheless rejects the 'utter poppycock' of his colleagues adding that it is a 'legal nonsense' and 'inexcusable professional misconduct' to claim (as some apparently have) that Archbishop De Kesel was setting the Catholic Church as being 'above the law'. He adds: 'It makes me really sad when I hear doctors say on TV how much people have become "ripe" for it. An indoctrination machine has indeed done its job.'

It remains to be seen whether or not the new Archbishop's words are a portent to a new approach in Catholic institutions across Belgium. De Kesel is known, perhaps unjustly, as being in a similar, progressive mould as his predecessor under whose reign euthanasia was accommodated or at least tolerated as Lemmens observes.

Whether or not De Kesel is drawing a line in the sand or simply reserving his putative right to do so, this episode has nevertheless highlighted the very real ethical dilemmas that arise once exceptions are made to the prohibitions on homicide. It also, once again, highlights how ideologues such as Distelmans detest any form of dissent or any thought of genuine dialogue or pluralism. Thankfully, there will always be some who swim against the tide.

Senator Vanackere extends his concerns about indoctrination (a shot at Distelmans no doubt) to the practical applications of the law and, even though he supports euthanasia, he sees real problems. He talks about the fact that a medical second opinion that does not support euthanasia in a particular case is no barrier:

'Who knows, for example, there is the so-called "second opinion" from another physician not even need to be similar, so that would have respected the rules of procedure of the law and the euthanasia can continue? If the second doctor finds that there is no question of a situation of hopeless suffering, his statement could just as well be used to say that there is careful management of the euthanasia. You said surrealism? Well, we're in Belgium.'

Vanackere closes with a sobering rebuke: 'Euthanasia should remain possible, as a way out when humane alternatives are truly lacking. But in Flanders we have drifted away from this legislation - which isn't sufficiently controlled - at top speed towards something that can hardly be described as anything but a trivialization of the "selfchosen" death. Vulnerable people, who fear being a burden to others, are its first victims. And that's why my blood boils when watching today's TV news.'

As the archbishop observed: "there is no free choice as there is only one choice."

See also:

Distelmans' 'bait and switch' as calls for 'dialogue' in Belgium continue to grow
Belgium and the 'ideological ostrich'
Belgian professionals speak out against euthanasia for psychological suffering

NB: online translations do not always render text into grammatically correct English. Where only slight corrections were necessary and where the meaning was obvious I have made those changes. Where the sentence is a little more complex, I have left the translation 'as-is' for the readers consideration. PR.