Three Belgium doctors may have gone too far, even for the pro-euthanasia nation, when they approved the 2010 killing of a 38-year-old autistic woman. The doctors decided that Tine Nys’ mild form of autism, called Asperger’s syndrome, diagnosed two months earlier, qualified as “unbearable and untreatable suffering” under Belgium’s euthanasia law.
Nys’ two sisters filed a complaint against the doctors, saying they acted irresponsibly in prescribing and administering the medication that caused her death. Last month, officials opened a criminal investigation to determine if autism is a legitimate reason for death by euthanasia. The Belgium Chamber of Indictment referred the case to the Court of Assize, which handles felonies.
Sophie Nys claims that the doctor who euthanized her sister acted strangely, asking Nys’ parents to hold the needle while he injected her with lethal drugs and having the family check if Nys’ heart had stopped beating.
The doctors, including notorious psychiatrist Lieve Thienpont, who regularly doles out death to her psychiatric patients, will face trial in Ghent.
René Stockman, head of the Catholic order Brothers of Charity, hailed the trial as a “test case” for Belgium’s extremely liberal stance on euthanasia. “We can only hope that this case will invite people to reflect which way they are going with society, where absolute freedom and autonomy and self-determination have become absolute No. 1 on the scale of values,” he told Catholic News Service. Last year, Stockman requested a formal Vatican investigation of the Belgium chapter of his order after the board came out in favor of euthanasia.
Alex Schadenberg, director of the Canada-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told me he expects a clarification of Belgian euthanasia law but no jail time for the doctors.
“These are not actually prosecutions,” he said. “There is a complaint in place. The law is not perfectly clear. So we’re going to prosecute this in order to determine what are the parameters in the law and let a judge decide rather than Parliament.”
Under Belgium’s 2002 euthanasia law, a patient must be in a “medically futile condition” to qualify for euthanasia but can list “mental suffering” connected to an incurable disorder. But it’s unclear whether disorders that are not life-threatening such as depression or autism legally qualify someone for euthanasia.
Schadenberg told me the recent prosecution of a Dutch doctor for possibly forcing euthanasia on an elderly dementia patient likely prompted Nys’ case. The Dutch patient had requested euthanasia in her advance directive, but when she refused to drink a cup of coffee containing the lethal drugs, the doctor allegedly had family members hold her down while he administered the dose.
In February, Dutch euthanasia advocate Ludo Vanopdenbosch resigned from his position on the country’s euthanasia commission, citing repeated and hushed abuse, including euthanizing people without request. His resignation came on the heels of Berna van Baarsen’s resignation from her post on a Netherlands euthanasia assessment committee over the killing of dementia patients. The Netherlands case could also affect Canada, which is considering opening the door for doctors to euthanize dementia patients based on an advance directive. Canada is also considering legalizing euthanasia for children, following in the footsteps of Belgium. At least three minors have died by euthanasia in Belgium since 2002.
“I’m hoping actually that the court decides that it’s gone too far and comes up with strict regulations saying that you can’t do this,” Schadenberg said. “These things have international repercussions.”