Sunday, 24 November 2013

Belgium's death evangelist

In my last post I mentioned Dr Wim Distelmans, the Belgian oncologist who has been pushing at the boundaries of the Belgian death laws. I mentioned how he is also head of the Belgian Euthanasia Commission – a conflict of interest which explains why his recent actions have not been scrutinized and why, over the last ten years, no doctor has been brought to heel for breeches in the Belgian law (when there’s ample evidence of abuse).
Dr Distelmans

Distelmans has been the focus of a Canadian National Post article that confirms all of the above. But more than that, the article not only confirms his ‘rock star’ status but explains how he is also a virtual death evangelist.  The article explains:
“But while he has his critics, more Belgians see the charismatic Dr. Distelmans as a hero. On one Wednesday night last month, more than 300 people turned out in Zemst, north of Brussels, to hear Dr. Distelmans talk about dying. Dressed in jeans, a polo shirt and a black sweater, he explained how to request euthanasia in a two-hour presentation peppered with jokes. One audience member, 76-year-old Simone Vleminckz, hailed Dr. Distelmans as someone who has devoted his career to ending people’s suffering. “I think he knows the pain people feel,” she said. “You see it in his face.””
So, not only is Distelmans pushing at the boundaries and doing so with impugnity, he has the effective endorsement of the Belgian Government and sells euthanasia . Dr Etienne Vermeersch said, at the Great Debate, that there were not enough euthanasia deaths; Distelmans is busy drumming up business!


How does this play out in the minds of older or disabled Belgians? Not only are they clearly given the impression that the only way to avoid suffering is via euthanasia, they also know that their government supports the program. How does this celebrate choice?

Clearly both Vermeersch and Distelmans are frustrated that not enough Belgians are marching lemming like to their demise. In Holland pro death groups set up mobile euthanasia teams because they saw that local doctors were not always willing to comply with death requests. Similarly, Distelmans has set up his own clinic:
"Dr. Distelmans, who is a professor at the Brussels university VUB, opened the ULteam clinic with colleagues two years ago to provide a sympathetic ear to patients seeking euthanasia. Its name is a play on the Dutch word for ultimate, or final. “Despite the fact that we have a good law on euthanasia, a lot of doctors and institutions — I mean hospitals and nursing homes — are still very prudent,” he said. “There are still a lot of people suffering unbearably because they ask for euthanasia and they don’t get it. That’s the reason we started an emergency consultation.”
Distelmans was involved in the death of the Verbessem twins
Again we see a reference to people ‘suffering unbearably’ as with the comments of Dr Bernheim and Dr Vermeersch at the Great Debate, this points either to problems with the quality or distribution of palliative care or, alternately, it’s simply a beat up – like snakeoil salesman – create the need then provide the answer.

It is indeed very strange that the country’s leading palliative care practitioner and chair of a government commission can claim, on the one hand, that people are ‘suffering unbearably’ across Belgium - for which he and the government must bear some responsibility – and, instead of committing to ensuring that no Belgian need die in pain, tells his compatriots that their death is the answer. How the two incongruous claims don’t create uproar and call into question the efficacy of Belgian’s palliative care system where euthanasia deaths are seen as part of the suite of medical options is astounding.

And just in case you’re tempted to dismiss the argument of incremental extension, there’s this from the National Post article:
“Dr. Distelmans countered that some of the control commission’s 16 members oppose euthanasia, and he is not in a position to dictate decisions. But the outcome of its last meeting is striking. Before meeting, members receive a thick stack of confidential forms providing the attending physician’s explanation for each euthanasia. Among the 172 cases up for review — just over a month’s worth — was the Sept. 30 death of Mr. Verhelst, the transsexual whose story was reported around the world and cited by critics as an example of euthanasia run amok. On the committee, no one batted an eye.”
“The case of Nathan Verhelst, for instance, who met all the conditions of the law, we didn’t discuss about the case for one minute. It was just passed like that,” Dr. Distelmans said. “We already have a tradition of 10 years. Should Nathan’s case have been 10 years ago, maybe we would have discussed some time about the case. Now, it’s like [just] another one.” (emphasis added)
The article also quotes Dr Tim Mortier, whose own mother was euthanased without his knowledge when her complaint was treatable clinical depression. Mortier says of Distelmans’ “What is he? Is he God or something?”
I an earlier article Mortier explained more of Distelmans evangelical fervour:
"… he has started his own ideological association (Leif) that is giving awards to other members of the Belgian Commission. For instance, the retired Senator Jacinta De Roeck, a pro-euthanasia activist, was recently honoured by Distelmans with a “lifetime achievement award,” which is ironic as already more than 8000 euthanasia cases have been registered in Belgium since 2002.”
He recently tweeted this sobering reflection: "We're living in a systemized world where people now worship doctors who are killing depressed people."
Of course, Distelmans is not alone in his fervour; the real difference between him and the likes of Dr Kevorkian or Dr Nitschke is the effective endorsement he receives both by governmental oversight and by virtue of his media profile and absence of dissent. 


2 comments:

  1. This guy is popular. Nitschke is popular. Dignitas is popular. From a capitalist market economy point of view this is an unmet need. Just as there is a need for alcohol, unhealthy food, pornography, and fast cars. We may not all of us want all of those those things, but obviously vast numbers of people do. Banning something only makes it more popular. I think it's pointless to go against the current, because ultimately it's self-defeating. People will still get what they want by breaking the law. More importantly, they will happily do so because they see it as an unfair law, and they will see the upholders of the bad law as the bad guys.

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  2. Nic, if I'm lumped in with some amorphous group of 'bad guys', so be it. It's not a popularity contest! Going with the flow, for me, is not an option. Nor do I think that the 'supply and demand' economic paradigm holds much in the way of a genuine comparison (though I admit it's clever rhetoric!)

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