Over recent weeks the issue of conscientious objection, or the “conscience clause” in the Belgian euthanasia law has been brought into the spotlight by the assertion by the new Catholic Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, that he has the right to refuse Catholic hospitals and aged care facilities to co-operate with euthanasia.
Euthanasia advocates both in academia and in the medical profession have bristled at the suggestion that institutions could say “Non” with many displaying a distinct and disturbing lack of understanding about the status of the 14 year old statute that allows doctors to kill their patients.
The Belgian law clearly provides a conscientious “out” for doctors and others assisting in a euthanasia but it is silent about institutions. Some suggest that the extension of a right of conscientious objection to institutions such as churches is implied while others suggest, dubiously to my thinking, that silence suggests otherwise.
The unexpected intransigence has brought to light a subtle, but important, distinction in the euthanasia law. In spite of the rhetoric, euthanasia is not legal in Belgium. The 2002 statute simply creates a defence in law for doctors who commit an act of euthanasia when they fulfil certain conditions. Fernand Keuleneer, a lawyer and alternate member of the Euthanasia Evaluation Commission for 10 years agrees, He told the media: “It is wrong to argue that the law requires Catholic hospitals to apply euthanasia. The law does not create a subjective, let alone fundamental right to euthanasia, but is limited to non-criminalization of doctors who perform euthanasia in legal terms.”
Initially all this seemed like like an academic exercise with no one expecting the new bishop to force a showdown. But a showdown was already in the making.
Belgian news outlets have reported that a Catholic nursing home has refused to allow a doctor onto its premises to perform euthanasia. According to reports, his 74-year-old female patient was terminally ill with metastatic cancer and was living in the St. Augustine residential care centre in Diest.
The process of requesting euthanasia began in 2011 and progressed for six months before St. Augustine’s management refused access, supposedly only days before the euthanasia was to take place. The various stories do not say whether or not the facility was formally aware of the process. However the family says that, after initially believing that the matter was simply a misunderstanding, they arranged for the woman to be transported to a private residence where the death took place. The family are claiming that the facility caused additional psychological and physical suffering for their mother.
The matter is listed to be heard in a civic court in Leuven in April – more than four years after the woman’s death and after the matter had already been postponed twice before — why, we are not told.
I smell a rat.
This issue precedes the current controversy over the Archbishop’s refusal to allow euthanasia to take place in Catholic nursing homes. It does not take a cynic to ask why a matter that has twice been suspended over a death that took place over four years ago where the woman got what she wanted, is suddenly before the media and the courts?
If that were not enough for conspiracy theorists, the lawyer for the woman’s family, Sylvie Tack, has a longstanding professional relationship with Belgium’s euthanasia supremo, Dr Wim Distelmans, and his Life Ending Information Network (LEIF) as a lecturer, speaker and member of their peer review panel.
It may be that Archbishop De Kesel was aware of this pending case when he made his pre-Christmas declaration. If so, full marks to him! As we observed earlier, it seems likely now that the courts may well determine the interpretation of Article 14 of Belgium’s euthanasia law.
It does not seem likely that the complaint by the woman’s family is principally about her treatment or any recompense or restitution for “suffering or loss”. As their lawyer told De Morgen: “The new Act states that doctors and staff who are involved in the euthanasia, can have conscientious objection. But the health care institution itself should not interfere with it themselves.”
Make no mistake: if ever there was going to be a test case, this is it. Rightly or wrongly, Belgian’s euthanasia supremos have always seen the Catholic Church and its influence as the last bulwark standing against them. I have heard them say as much personally. Perhaps, ironically, they also see Catholicism as the last voice of conscience – to which they clearly object.