Hundreds of Patients in Belgium Dead From Euthanasia Since Legalization

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 15, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Hundreds of Patients in Belgium Dead From Euthanasia Since Legalization

by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
July 15, 2004

Brussels, Belgium ( — Hundreds of people have been put to death in Belgium as a result of the legalization of euthanasia there, according to statistics released last week.

In all, 400 cases of euthanasia have been documented in Belgium since the practice was legalized two years ago and many more may not have been reported to governmental authorities.

The acts of euthanasia were carried out with the aid of physicians, who filed official declarations indicating that they had ended the lives of terminally ill people.

Under Belgium’s "mercy killing" regulations, a doctor can only assist in a patient’s death if the individual has asked "voluntarily and repeatedly" and has "thought deeply" about what he or she is asking.

The patient must also be deemed in full control of his or her mental faculties. Belgian authorities have interpreted that to mean that the patient is fully aware of what he or she is asking and is not being pressured by anyone.

However, a number of ethicists point out that the "right to die" often leads to the "duty to die," with people who are seriously ill believing that they must end their lives in order to avoid being a burden to others.

For instance, published reports indicate that euthanasia practitioners routinely engage in illegal practices that are abusive to patients. In June, reports surfaced that three people with Huntington’s disease and a person with Alzheimer’s had died in the Netherlands as a result of euthanasia — even though Dutch law prohibits mercy killing in such cases.

None of the patients with Huntington’s were in the final stages of the disease, and the Alzheimer’s patient was in the beginning phase of the ailment. The doctors involved in the deaths are not being prosecuted, even though the law specifies prison terms of up to 12 years for violations of the Netherlands’ euthanasia law.

The British Medical Journal recently reported that the Dutch health minister is concerned that doctors are not fulfilling their legal obligations to report instances of euthanasia. The minister’s comments came after the release of statistics showing a decrease in the number of reported euthanasia cases — the fourth consecutive year of decline.

A previous study of the Netherlands showed that only 54 percent of euthanasia cases had actually been reported.

Likewise, in Oregon, some public officials are concerned about the accuracy of the euthanasia figures that have been released. The official count indicates that 42 people died in Oregon by means of assisted suicide in 2003, a slight increase over the previous year’s totals.

There are no penalties under Oregon law for failing to report assisted suicides.

Across the world, new questions are being raised about the motives of the pro-euthanasia movement. While euthanasia campaigners often say they’re working to end the pain of the terminally ill, there is evidence that euthanasia and assisted suicides are being carried out on individuals who are not in imminent danger of death.

For instance, medical authorities have determined that Australian euthanasia advocate Nancy Crick was cancer-free at the time of her well-publicized assisted suicide. Still, authorities do not plan to press charges in the case, even though assisted suicide is illegal in the state of Queensland, where Crick died.

And in New Zealand, physician-assisted deaths appears to be rampant, even though a bill to allow assisted suicide was defeated in Parliament last year. The New Zealand Medical Journal has reported that 693 general practitioners admitted taking part in physician-assisted death during a 12-month period.

The killings occurred even though palliative care was available. In hundreds of cases, doctors hastened deaths without consulting the patients involved.