Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Stay of Execution (euthanasia) for Belgian prisoner

This article was published on the HOPE Australia blog on January 7, 2015.

By Paul Russell, The Director of Hope Australia and the Vice Chair of EPC - International

Paul Russell
Frank Van Den Bleeken's 'executioners have second thoughts.

Frank Van Den Bleeken was scheduled to be killed by euthanasia in a Belgian prison on January 11th after receiving approval from the Belgian courts. However, in mixed messages about the reasoning, within the last 24 hours, Van Den Bleeken’s request to die will now not be honoured.

A number of media outlets reported that the doctors who had agreed to commit the act of euthanasia had withdrawn. Shortly after, The Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens announced that Van Den Bleeken would be transferred to a new psychiatric facility in Ghent and, afterwards, to a long-stay facility in The Netherlands.

It is hard not to be cynical about this ‘eleventh-hour reprieve’. Van Den Bleeken had, according to reports, only received one psychiatric intervention in his entire 30 year incarceration. He had previously asked to be transferred to the above mentioned Dutch facility and had been refused. He had been engaging the Belgian authorities for more than two years for access to euthanasia.

It is understood that up to 1000 prisoners with psychiatric disorders are housed in the general prison population with no support for their conditions. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Belgium’s lack of humane facilities fourteen times in recent years. Little wonder that following the publicity around Van Den Bleeken 15 other inmates have also requested euthanasia.

Even Belgium’s euthanasia supremo Dr Wim Distelmans expressed reservations about this case. In an opinion article in De Morgen, Distelmans writes: I decide no longer to act as physician for euthanasia because I think some (legal) due diligence are not respected. The unbearable suffering must be caused by the incurable (psychiatric) disorder, which is only partially true. Additionally, all therapeutic options should be offered - if the patient wants - including palliative treatments that do not cure but provide a better quality of life.

Here Distelmans is reflecting upon the structure of the Belgian euthanasia law. However, Distelmans’ reference to other ‘therapeutic options’ will be considered to be little more than a bad joke for people like Tom Mortier whose mother was euthanased by Distelmans when suffering treatable clinical depression. The addition of ‘if the patient wants’ as a qualifier in Distelmans’ objection is rather telling. What if Van Den Bleeken doesn’t want to go to the Dutch facility? Does he then qualify for euthanasia? Again, a cynical view would suggest that Distelman is simply trying to distance himself from yet another controversial euthanasia death.
Clearly there’s much more to this case than simply another story of the Belgian slide towards euthanasia death on demand. The international scrutiny and the association of this case with capital punishment to the embarrassment of Belgian authorities seem to me to be the main motivation.

Could this determination that Van Den Bleeken now receives treatment see access to euthanasia for all Belgians restricted to only once all therapeutic options have been exhausted? Not likely. No-one can be forced to try every option. So, in terms of the practice of euthanasia in Belgium, Van Den Bleeken clearly does not enjoy the same access to this ‘right’ as do his fellow Belgians. He has moved from experiencing one form of human rights violation against his person to another.

So, while we are pleased for Van Den Bleeken that he now has access to psychiatric support services that he should have had many years earlier, this whole messy situation only serves to confirm the idiocy of trying to create a ‘right-to-die’.

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