Introduction

Webcast archive: Belgian doctors prosecuted after 2010 euthanasia

This week, we're looking at another prosecution of doctors following a woman's euthanasia.

Webcast archive: Belgian doctors prosecuted after 2010 euthanasia

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray, and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • Three Belgian doctors are prosecuted eight years after a questionable euthanasia
  • UK Supreme Court rejects Noel Conway’s appeal

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.

THREE BELGIAN DOCTORS ARE PROSECUTED EIGHT YEARS AFTER A QUESTIONABLE EUTHANASIA

  • Today, we’re discussing another euthanasia-related prosecution – this time in Belgium. You’ll remember, on November 16th we talked about the first prosecution under the Netherlands’ euthanasia law. For this report we examined many articles, in three languages, which had incomplete and contradictory information.  We’ve put together the clearest account possible.
  • In April of 2010, 38-year-old Tine Nys was euthanized, with the approval of two physicians and a psychiatrist.  Though Belgium’s euthanasia evaluation committee found no problems with the approval process or administration of death, Nys’ sisters filed a criminal complaint, claiming there were a number of “irregularities” in the euthanasia process.  Knack magazine reported on November 22 that “The board of indictment ruled Thursday that there are sufficient indications that the conditions and procedures imposed by the euthanasia law have not been complied with.” If the charges are upheld, the doctors could face life sentences.
  • Two of the doctors associated with the Nys case may be familiar to those who follow our webcast.
    • Dr. Wim Distelmans, the head of the Federal Control and Evaluation Committee and a frequent euthanasia provider (conflict of interest, much?), stated that he is surprised to be considered in a criminal matter since he only consulted on the case. As we reported in 2014, Distelmans led a trip to Auschwitz, “as an inspiring venue for … reflecting on [end of life] issues so that we can consider and clarify confusion.” (The text and video of the webcast are available online.)
    • Dr. Lieve Thienpont, the psychiatrist in the case, is also known for promoting euthanasia for psychiatric reasons.  In 2015 she published a paper where she described approving 48 of 100 requests for euthanasia for psychiatric reasons, whereas other psychiatrists’ approval rates range from 10 to 30%.
  • The complaint filed by Tine’s sisters claims the Nys was deemed eligible even though the doctors “never prepared a report together or exchanged diagnoses.” or provided any treatment for her autism.  The complaint also alleges that the euthanasia was performed in an unprofessional manner.
  • Her sister Sophie reported the doctor who performed the euthanasia was “nonchalant” and unprepared; arriving without an IV pole or tape to secure the IV needle.  Family members had to hold the injection line in place, the IV bag was balanced on the back of the chair, and her parents were asked to confirm that Tine’s heart had stopped using a stethoscope.  The physician also “compared [Tine’s] death to that of a pet who suffers and receives a syringe.”
  • During the investigation, Sophie obtained access to her sister’s medical file and found emails between Tine’s doctors attempting to block the investigation. “We must try to stop these people,” Dr. Thienpont wrote, calling the Nys family “seriously dysfunctional, wounded, [and] traumatized, [with] very little empathy and respect for others.”
  • Some articles have implied that the Asperger’s diagnosis was faked either by Tine or her doctors in order to ensure her eligibility for euthanasia. Sam Crane, Legal Director and Director of Public Policy at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, says “It’s not uncommon for women especially to be struggling with mental health concerns for many years before finally getting an autism diagnosis. We can be diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, or other conditions before someone finally realized we’re autistic.”
  • Reports emphasize that this is the first time criminal charges are being pursued in a euthanasia case. However advocates such as Penny Lewisand researchers such as Scott Kim and José Pereira have expressed concern about the effectiveness of safeguards in euthanasia of people with psychiatric disabilities.
  • The story raises a lot of questions:
    • Ms. Nys was killed eight years ago; why weren’t charges brought sooner? What happened between the evaluation Commission’s ruling that there was no problem, and the decision to prosecute?
    • Why now?  This prosecution was announced only days after the one in the Netherlands.  Is Belgium trying to “keep up with the Joneses” by following the lead of others in an attempt to prove that authorities aren’t indifferent to violations of the law?
    • Is Belgium really trying to get tough on doctors who cut corners on compliance, or is there another reason to bring charges now?  In his commentary on the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition blog, Alex Schadenberg suggests another possibility; that the prosecution in the Nys case may be less about punishing non-compliance than about establishing standards under which euthanasia for psychiatric conditions is deemed acceptable.
    • What is the message we’re sending to autistic people when autism is deemed an acceptable reason to want to die?  Sam Crane says “The suffering that’s associated with unaddressed autism is certainly not incurable. Lots of autistic people who were very depressed before their diagnosis end up feeling much better once they get an understanding of how their brain works, know what they need to thrive, and find a community. Sending the message that autistic people must face lifelong suffering because you can’t cure autism is incredibly damaging. That sort of attitude has resulted in murder of autistic children and is most likely a contributing factor to our alarmingly high suicide rate.”
    • One study of newly-diagnosed autistic people showed that 66% had considered suicide compared to 17% of the neurotypical participants. This was attributed to employment problems or social isolation.
    • Tine Nys’ story is a prime example how euthanasia supporters dismiss inadequate safeguards. Problems are ignored until they can no longer be hidden. The view that death is a solution to “suffering” shows an ignorance of and bias against disability in the medical profession, and doctors’ willingness to (wrongly) attribute any distress the person faces to their condition.

U.K. SUPREME COURT REJECTS NOEL CONWAY’S APPEAL

  • Noel Conway’s appeal to the UK Supreme Court has been rejected. Mr. Conway has been campaigning to overturn the ban on assisted suicide, contained in the Suicide Act of 1961, claiming the law violates his right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Supreme Court said Conway’s case was unlikely to succeed, given Parliament’s 2015 vote to maintain the assisted suicide ban.
  • The High Court (one step below the Supreme Court) declined to hear his case in June. Mr. Conway originally brought suit before the High Court in October 2017, after the Court refused to remove the prohibition on assisted suicide.