This op-ed appeared in today’s issue of The Mercury, the main newspaper in Hobart, Tasmania, where members of Parliament are gearing up for a debate on euthanasia. It was a companion piece to an article in favour of legalisation by Emeritus Professor Colin Wendell-Smith, convenor of Doctors for Dying with Dignity and co-convenor of Doctors for Voluntary Euthanasia.
As Tasmanian MPs ponder legalising voluntary euthanasia as a remedy for unbearable suffering, they should take a close look at the situation in Belgium, where it has been legal since 2002.
For starters, at this very moment their colleagues in Brussels are pondering whether to legalise euthanasia for children. Are Belgian five-year-olds really capable of voluntarily choosing to die?
The Belgian MPs are also studying whether to authorise euthanasia for patients with dementia who have written advance directives, even if they appear to be cheerful and content with their impaired life. Is that really voluntary?
The history of euthanasia in Belgium is one of unremitting bracket creep. What began with euthanasia only for constant, unbearable, untreatable suffering and only for consenting adults keeps expanding and expanding with consequences which no one foresaw. Here are a few of them.
Euthanasia for organ donation. Euthanased donors now account for one in eight lung transplants from deceased donors in Belgium. The most valuable donors are those with diseases like motor neurone disease because their heart and lungs are healthy. A euthanasia doctor gives them a lethal injection in one room and they are wheeled into another where surgeons take their organs.
The world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking also has motor neurone disease. People with this condition deserve compassion, affection and support, not to have their organs plundered.
Euthanasia for prisoners. The first case took place last year. All of the conditions had been carefully fulfilled: the prisoner had a terminal illness, he had made repeated requests for death, and three doctors had signed off on the request. More prisoners have applied to follow his example. Australia’s best-known euthanasia activist, Dr Philip Nitschke, has described euthanasia as the “last frontier in prison reform”. But is this the way to fix problems at Risdon Prison?
Euthanasia as a substitute for adequate welfare services. A recent judgement by the European Committee on Social Rights found that that Belgium’s inadequate provision of care and accommodation for highly dependent persons with disabilities amounted to a violation of human rights.
It’s not surprising, given what happened to Mark and Eddy Verbessem late last year. They were deaf 45-year-old identical twins. When they discovered that they were going blind, they applied for euthanasia. They were not terminally ill or in pain. They simply did not have adequate family and social support.
Euthanasia to cover up doctors’ mistakes. Last week (September 30) a transsexual was euthanased because doctors had botched his sex reassignment. Nathan (born Nancy) Verhelst told the media, “I was ready to celebrate my new birth,” he said. “But when I looked in the mirror, I was disgusted with myself. My new breasts did not match my expectations and my new penis had symptoms of rejection. I do not want to be… a monster.” Nathan is no longer around to sue his gynaecologist and psychiatrist.
Euthanasia to cover up doctors’ crimes. Ann G (her surname was not made public) suffered from anorexia nervosa and consulted a renowned psychiatrist, Walter Vandereycken, who sexually abused her. She accused him on national television. Instead of being deregistered and jailed, he went back to work in private practice.
Ann G was distraught. She still had to live with her anorexia, she had become a victim of sexual abuse, and her tormenter was as free as a bird. But there was a solution. Late last year another psychiatrist euthanased her. Ann G will not be testifying at investigations into Dr Vandereycken’s extracurricular activities.
Euthanasia as entertainment. The practice has become trivialised in Belgium, the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics (IEB) claimed last year in a comprehensive report. This is a chilling and inhumane development but, as euthanasia becomes more common, it is only to be expected. The death of Nathan Verhelst, for example, was broadcast on a local TV station. The leading euthanasia doctor in Belgium, Wim Distelmans, often appears on TV chat shows and talks – and jokes — about some of his cases.
Euthanasia as a cosy little club. The go-to guy for euthanasia in Belgium is Dr Wim Distelmans, an oncologist. He has done a number of them. The chief publicist for euthanasia is also Wim Distelmans. He is a familiar face on television and is constantly lobbying for more bracket creep. And the government appointee who heads up the panel which assesses whether doctors have acted within the law is… Yes, you guessed it! Wim Distelmans! Is it any wonder that after 10 years and about 5,500 cases, not one case of euthanasia has ever been referred to the Belgian police?
You won’t find these grubby details in the report written by Lara Giddings and Nick McKim to spruik their bill. But that’s what euthanasia is: a grubby, impersonal and exploitative business. Is this what the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged in Tasmania deserve?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.