Marc Cosyns and Wim Distelmans (photo: Fred Debrock)
What was it Winston Churchill said about Russia: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”? With respect to social policy, much the same applies to Belgium. Supporters of euthanasia there just roll their eyes in exasperation when critics in the English-speaking world thunder about slippery slopes or violations of human dignity.
The two sides are simply failing to mesh gears in the moral debate. The best example of this is a conversation in the leading Belgian newspaper De Standaard between Wim Distelmans and Marc Cosyns, two leading advocates of legalised euthanasia.
Dr Distelmans is the best-known spokesman for euthanasia in Belgium, its best-known practitioner, and the chairman of the Federal Control and Assessment Commission since it was legalised in 2002. Belgian doctors are required to submit a report on every case of euthanasia and submit it to this commission to check that all the statutory procedures have been faithfully followed. If anyone is responsible for ensuring that the legal safeguards are applied rigorously, it is Wim Distelmans.
Dr Cosyns is a palliative care specialist whose views on euthanasia are far more advanced than Distelmans’s. (See MercatorNet’s review of his film about a decade of legal euthanasia.) He favours the complete decriminalisation of euthanasia so that it will be regarded simply as just another option for palliative care physicians.
This is the background to an astonishing admission made by Dr Cosyns in the course of their conversation. The journalist from De Standaard asked whether he reports the deaths he has caused through euthanasia to the Commission.
“No, not when it comes to our own patients,” Dr Cosyns responded. “Everything I do is done on the basis of the law of patients’ rights. We should not be required to give assurances that we did not intend to harm the person. Euthanasia is a normal medical procedure, as normal as the possibility of palliative sedation.”
In other words, Dr Cosyns, exasperated that Belgium’s law does not coincide with his own philosophy of euthanasia, admitted that he ignores it. The law be damned! is his motto.
Even within the permissive framework of Belgian legislation, Dr Cosyns has clearly committed a crime. He has killed Belgian citizens. He is allowed to do this in those exceptional cases which are defined as euthanasia, but he has refused to report these acts, as he is required to do and as the public expects him to do.
Even Wim Distelmans appeared to be bug-eyed in amazement at this admission. “But Marc,” he said gently, “you cannot ignore the criminal law.”
So what happened after the publication of the article? A leading public figure confessed to a crime – possibly many crimes – before witnesses who included the “judge” in charge of administering the law for this particular crime. Surely there must have been outrage at the arrogance of a doctor who regards himself as above the law. Surely the head of the commission must have initiated an investigation.
But nothing happened. Nothing at all.
To illustrate just how different things are across the Channel, consider the recent case of Ray Gosling. Gosling was a talented BBC broadcaster and gay rights activist. In 2010 he decided to make a series about death and he interviewed people involved in mercy killings. Then, on the February 15 episode of the BBC magazine show Inside Out, he declared that 16 years ago he himself had smothered an unnamed lover as he lay dying of AIDS to spare him terrible pain.
Now in England there is a lot of sympathy for assisted suicide and mercy killing, particularly amongst the intelligentsia. Nonetheless, it is clearly against the law. The police reacted immediately. Thirty-six hours after the program aired, Gosling was arrested on suspicion of murder. He was released on bail and a six-month investigation ensued.
The police eventually discovered that Gosling had fabricated the whole story and he was given a six-month suspended sentence for wasting police time. (Gosling died in November at the age of 74.)
Why was Gosling arrested while Cosyns is still at large, free to administer lethal injections, accountable to no one except himself? In this juxtaposition lies the difference between the Anglosphere and Belgium.
What can explain it? Is it a white coat exemption, which places doctors and scientists on a pedestal above laws written for patients? Is it a disdain for Europe’s Christian heritage so bitter that whatever Christians have condemned must now be condoned?
Or is it an Olympian nonchalance toward “the majesty of the law”, the feeling that laws are written for the little people, not the haut monde of people with media profiles and PhDs? If this is the case, foreign observers must be forgiven if they ask whether there will ever be enough safeguards in Belgium’s euthanasia legislation to protect the weak, elderly and vulnerable.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.