On the 13th of November in the Goethe Institute in Brussels, Alex Schadenberg, chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International, debated noted pro-euthanasia medical academic, Dr Jan Bernheim. The panel discussion afterwards included Carine Brochier from the European Bioethics Institute (on the no side) and Professor Etienne Vermeersch, one of the authors of the Belgian euthanasia legislation and a government advisor.
The debate became quite animated at times and even heated for a moment or two. Both Bernheim and Vermeersch tried in different ways to make it a ‘Catholics versus sensible people’ debate; which neither Schadenberg nor Brochier bought into at all. Vermeersch at one point declaring his frustration that euthanasia practice in Belgium was being hampered by Catholic-run hospitals (“there are not enough euthanasia deaths occurring”) and even going so far as to blame ‘the Walloons’ - the predominantly French-speaking region in the south of the country - for not embracing Belgian death culture.
Bernheim opened by drawing our attention to the typhoon disaster in the Philippines. Curiously, he blamed global warming for the disaster. I say curiously in a climate change agnostic sense in as much as it would seem to have precious little to do with the practice of euthanasia in Belgium or The Netherlands. The context however was made clear in the very next statement where Bernhiem expounded his theory that climate change was caused by over-population. In saying as much, Bernheim declared himself a card-carrying Malthusian. One wonders what effect this kind of thinking has had upon his drive to bring euthanasia to Belgium.
Bernheim then explained that it was he who first visited the UK to study the hospice movement with a view to bringing palliative care practice to his homeland. He then suggested to the audience that, while Dame Cicily Saunders’ aim in creating the hospice movement was to stop euthanasia, that his reasoning for wanting to bring hospice to Belgium was precisely the reverse – to also bring with it the deliberate killing of patients. He misreads Saunders’ aims to make a chilling point.
He then proceeded to show the audience some data on the increase in government spending on palliative care services in Belgium adding that Belgian practice was now amongst the best in Europe. Given that acts of euthanasia are conducted falsely within the paradigm of palliative care, we are left to wonder what the real position vis-à-vis the European context would be if spending on the killing of patients were removed from these totals. Moreover, given both Bernheim and Vermeersch’s continual references to Belgians dying in excruciating pain it is legitimate to ask whether their palliative care services are indeed world class or just how much access Belgians have to these services?
Schadenberg simply asked the question: is it safe? He then gave a number of contemporary examples of situations that earlier would have been considered to be outside even the Belgian law. We think of stories such as Nathan Verhelst who sought euthanasia after botched sex-change surgery; the Verbessem twins who sought euthanasia because they were going blind; the woman with Anorexia Nervosa who was euthanased after exposing that her psychiatrist was sexually abusing her and a woman who died by euthanasia who was clinically depressed.
Schadenberg went on to relate the studies concluded from data collected in the Flanders Region of Belgium in 2007 that showed that almost half of the deaths were not reported, that of those reported there was no evidence of request or consent in 32% of cases.
“…the data proves that the assisted deaths that are done without request, the assisted deaths that are done by nurses and the unreported assisted deaths share a high co-relation with the same demographic group, that being people who are over the age of 80, who are incompetent to make decisions, who die in a hospital and usually have an unpredictable end-of-life trajectory. This is a vulnerable patient group at risk of having euthanasia imposed upon them. Sadly these people are also known as bed blockers.” Said Schadenberg.
Bernheim seemed to delight in naming prominent pro-euthanasia colleagues who were once his students. Dr Wim Distelmans was mentioned in this context. Distelmans is, according to Dr Tom Mortier, is a euthanasia ‘media icon’. But he is much more than that. He has also been head of the Belgian Euthanasia Control and Evaluation Commission (Belgian Commission) for more than 10 years now – a Commission stacked with other pro-euthanasia members. As Mortier observed, “It appears that Distelmans has become both the judge and the executioner”.
I was speaking with a Belgian resident in the days preceding the debate and asked her about Distelmans. According to her, He is the sole public voice and sole expert on euthanasia and his statements are never challenged. It is he that continues to push the boundaries of euthanasia in many of the recent cases that have attracted international attention.
Tom Mortier was present during the debate. Dr Mortier is a chemist. His mother was euthanased without his knowledge when her complaint was treatable clinical depression. Tom first found out about his mother’s death when he was contacted, post-mortem, to make the arrangements for the collection of her body. Little wonder that Mortier is incensed by Bernheim and Vermeersch and has become part of a growing resistance.
The most chilling part of the evening came from comments by Dr Vermeersch. He raised himself up to a fever pitch in defending his aims to relieve all suffering. Many of us were left to understand that by this he meant that he would end all suffering by ending all sufferers. The soundtrack to the infamous Nuremberg Rallies might well have been played in the background – such was his fervour.
In response to one question Vermeersch may have been caught off guard when he directed his bile at my colleague Kevin Fitzpatrick by yelling, “wait until you are paralysed”. Kevin is a paraplegic wheel chair user following a shooting 40 years ago. Vermeersch made it clear that the Belgian law is directed at people with disabilities.
Bernheim also admitted that there are problems with the Belgian euthanasia law. He then stated that there is a study that may be published soon where the data shows other problems with the practise of euthanasia in Belgium.
All of this occurred as the Belgian Senate prepares to debate extending their laws to include euthanasia for children and for dementia sufferers. This debate has caught the attention of the international media; most – if not all – reports siding against this vile new development.
One wonders if the Belgians actually get much news of these developments or, indeed, if they are aware of the international condemnation and continued focus on the entrenched problems with their euthanasia laws. What is clear from the debate is that Bernheim and Vermeersch are not used to having to defend their positions against capable opponents.
With the establishment of the Euthanasia PreventionCoalition – Europe that same day in Brussels, I suggest that they would do well to get used to such scrutiny.