Breaking news from a number of sources says that Belgian police have charged a 57-year-old man with 10 cases of illegal euthanasia. The man, identified as a Catholic deacon from the town of Wevelgem, was working in the Sacred Heart Hospital in Menin until 2002. Afterwards he continued part-time as a pastoral assistant until 2011. The deaths seem to have taken place between the early 1980s and 2011.
Belgium’s euthanasia laws came into effect in 2002 presumably rendering any euthanasia deaths before that time subject to the Belgian criminal code on homicide.
The fact that these deaths are supposed to have occurred in a Catholic Hospital at the hands of a man holding the position of Deacon will be a significant embarrassment to the Catholic Church in Belgium. The Diocese of Bruges has commented that “Euthanasia and Deacon are two words that should not be in the same sentence.”
This case will be watched very closely both in Belgium and elsewhere. Details of the deaths and the death methods have not yet come to light. However, what will be of most interest is how the Belgian Courts will deal with this matter considering that, since 2002, no acts of euthanasia have been referred to the police by the Euthanasia Evaluation Commission yet studies have shown that in the Flanders region in 2007, up to 47 percent of euthanasia deaths were not reported and 32 percent of deaths that year showed no record of request or consent.
Should the law deal harshly with the suspect, then the question is whether illegal euthanasia acts since 2002 should be treated similarly.
But here’s the problem: with Belgium’s practice of euthanasia not being strictly guarded by the Evaluation Commission over 12 years now, with doctors admitting publicly that they choose not to even report such deaths (a breach of the law), and with 5 deaths by euthanasia occurring every day, is it likely that this man should be judged by the standards pre-2002?
On the other hand, if the judgement is made in regards for the extant law and the socio-medical mores of 2014 (with the suspect, therefore, receiving a lighter penalty) this would only serve to confirm the cultural drift towards the acceptability of killing those whom others feel have a life that is not worth living.
Much of the above is, of course, speculative given the paucity of information. It does however pose a significant problem for Belgian law.
Paul Russell is Executive Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide and is Vice Chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International. This article first appeared in his blog and has been republished with permission.