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'Don’t go there' – Belgians plead with Canada not to pass euthanasia law

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Prescription bottle. Credit: Charles Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) filter added.

The Parliament of Canada has until June 6 to consider Bill C-14, controversial legislation that, if passed, would legalize euthanasia in the country.

But some citizens of Belgium, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, have a message for Canada: Don’t do it.

In a new series of videos, Belgian doctors, lawyers, and family members of the euthanized argue that legalizing euthanasia sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the most vulnerable in society and compromises patient-physician relationships.

The videos are produced by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and Dunn Media. The group is also producing a documentary on the issue entitled “Vulnerable: The Euthanasia Deception” due out in June.

“Don’t go there,” Hendrik Reitsema, whose grandfather was euthanized in Belgium, said in one of the videos. “Why? You open Pandora’s Box to the practice of killing as though it were a normal part of medicine.”  

“We’ve had a protection against physicians killing people for more than 2,000 years because of the Hippocratic tradition,” Reitsema said. “And we’ve now arrived at a moment in history where… physicians now become a threat to their patients.”

Euthanasia, which Canada’s Parliament is considering, differs from physician-assisted suicide in that anyone – a doctor, a family member, the patient – may administer lethal drugs to the patient. Under physician-assisted suicide, the patient’s doctor prescribes lethal drugs, but legally only the patient can administer them to themselves.

Proponents of euthanasia laws often argue that safeguards can protect the vulnerable from abuse of these laws. However, Belgian doctors and lawyers in one of the short videos contend that “safeguards are an illusion.”

“For me the only clear safeguard is to say that a doctor cannot kill a patient,” Dr. Benoit Beuselinck, a Belgian oncologist and professor, said in the video.

“Once you admit that a doctor can kill his patient, even in terminal conditions, it would be very difficult to put a red line and say you cannot go beyond this.”

Dr. Beuselinck said that often, oncologists are reluctant to give their patients a prognosis because everyone’s body reacts differently to diseases and treatments, and prognoses are often wrong. Under Belgian law, any adult with a terminal illness can request euthanasia. But a terminal diagnosis can be deceiving, as many patients survive far past their prognosis.

“Because what is a terminally ill situation? How can you judge if a patient will live three days, three weeks, three months?”

In another video, Dr. Beuselinck said he has also seen the law go unchecked, with an estimated 30-40 percent of performed cases of euthanasia going unreported.

“There is no control of the law,” he said. “In Belgium patients are killed by euthanasia at the first diagnosis of Alzheimer's or of malignant disease of a cancer.”

Anti-euthanasia activist Lionel Roosemont said in the “Safeguards” video that once euthanasia becomes enshrined in law, it soon ceases to be a free choice.

“The freedom of choice of euthanasia has become the obligation of choice, of having euthanasia,” he said.

Once euthanasia is an option, sick people often feel they have an obligation to request euthanasia so as not to be a burden on their friends and family, Reitsema said.

“This shows you that by opening the possibility of euthanasia, you open a sense of burden,” he said.

“Before it’s a legal option, caring for somebody who needs care is just the human thing to do, but once they have the opportunity to choose to let their lives be ended, their not doing so is to choose to burden their next of kin. That’s unfair.”  

Etienne Montero, a Belgian lawyer and Dean of Faculty of Law at the University of Namur, said euthanasia laws are also dangerous because of the unclear terms.

“The law says the patient must be suffering from a grave or incurable illness that results in physical or mental suffering, but it is evident that it would be questioned very quickly why someone who is suffering from a psychiatric illness should not also be able to access euthanasia. This is what we see today, we see that euthanasia applies in situations of psychiatric suffering that are not necessarily grave or incurable illnesses,” he said.

In 2015, a 24-year old woman identified as Laura was granted the “right to die” under Belgium’s law for suffering suicidal thoughts. But as the appointment for lethal injection neared, she changed her mind.

Belgium has also seen the law stretched beyond its original limits. While the original law only allowed those 18 years of age or older to request euthanasia, children of any age can now request euthanasia and be given it, if it is approved by doctors, psychologists, and their parents.

Marnix Coelmont, a teacher and advocate, said his advice to Canada would be that if they are going to approve euthanasia, then they also need to invest a lot of money in palliative, end-of-life care that so that people don’t feel like they have to choose euthanasia.

“Because unbearable pain is a very relative concept,” he said.

Dr. Beuselinck said doctors can help their patients at the time of death without killing them.  

“We help people to die by controlling their suffering and controlling their symptoms. We don’t help them to die by killing them directly.”

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