A prisoner has been allowed by a Belgian court to undergo euthanasia. Claiming that he is unable to control the violent sexual urges which impelled him to commit several rapes and a murder, 50-year-old Frank Van Den Bleeken wants to die. “My life has now absolutely no meaning. They may as well put a flower pot here,” he said in a television documentary earlier this year. He says that he is suffering “unbearable psychological anguish”.
Mr Van Den Bleeken’s crimes go back to the late 1980s. At his trial, he was found not to be criminally responsible and was incarcerated in the psychiatric wing of Merksplas, an ageing penal complex near Antwerp. More recently he was moved the psychiatric wing of Turnhout, a another ageing prison. It appears that in neither place did he receive adequate psychological treatment. This is not uncommon in Belgium, which has been criticised by the European Court of Human Rights for the low level of care for inmates with mental disorders.
Eventually he applied for a transfer to a jail in the Netherlands which offers modern psychiatric treatment. It was refused. Belgium has an agreement with its neighbour to dump excess criminals from its jails, but this does not cover psychiatric patients.
Finally Van Den Bleeken had enough of the red tape and three years ago he applied for euthanasia. “If people commit a sexual crime, help them to deal with it,” he said. “Just locking them up helps no one: not the person, not society and not the victims. I am a human being, and regardless of what I’ve done, I remain a human being. So, yes, give me euthanasia.”
Now he will become the first prisoner to receive a lethal injection at the hands of doctors since euthanasia became legal in 2002. The exact date is yet to be determined.
The world has become accustomed to regular extensions of the boundaries of Belgium’s euthanasia law. Initially it was billed as voluntary euthanasia for mentally competent adults suffering from a terminal illness. Nowadays the illness need not be terminal; the adults need not be mentally competent; and children are eligible. Basically, anyone who seriously thinks that life’s a bitch has ticked most of the boxes for Belgium’s euthanasia program.
But Van Den Bleeken’s case has shaken even rusted-on supporters of euthanasia because it seems to contradict the spirit of the 2002 law. Here is the text of section 3:
§1. The physician who performs euthanasia commits no criminal offence when he/she ensures that:
— the patient has attained the age of majority or is an emancipated minor, and is legally competent and conscious at the moment of making the request;
— the request is voluntary, well-considered and repeated, and is not the result of any external pressure;
— the patient is in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that can not be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident; and when he/she has respected the conditions and procedures as provided in this Act.
Van Den Bleeken’s case throws nearly every single phrase of this statute into contention.
Is he terminally ill? Not physically. However, he does claim to be suffering unbearable anguish, which is grounds for euthanasia. But why? Because his own government has refused to try to alleviate his suffering. Does this mean that the threshold for medical futility is set by the government’s budget?
Is his suffering incurable? We don’t know because his government has effectively refused to treat him. Even Belgium’s leading euthanasia doctor, Dr Wim Distlemans, feels queasy about this. He said: “Surely, we are not going to carry out euthanasia because we can’t offer an alternative?”
Can any prisoner’s request for euthanasia truly be voluntary? If Belgium refused to provide Van Den Bleeken with the psychiatric help he needs, can his desperate plea be deemed “voluntary [and] well-considered” and “not the result of any external pressure”, as the euthanasia law stipulates? Furthermore, prison life is so grim that it is bound to make some prisoners brood obsessively about euthanasia. Already 15 other prisoners have applied for it.
Although no one in Belgium has been executed since 1950, capital punishment was only removed from the statute books in 1996. Perhaps the introduction of euthanasia six years later in 2002 should be interpreted as a way for the state to reclaim its lost powers over life and death. In any case, it certainly muddles the meaning of the state’s authority over its citizens’ lives.
Should prisoners be allowed to “escape” a life sentence? “I’m a danger to society,” Van Den Bleeken said in the documentary. “What am I supposed to do? What’s the point in sitting here until the end of time and rotting away? I’d rather be euthanased.” However, the sisters of one of his victims, whom he raped and killed while on parole, insist that justice demands that he “rot” in jail. “We hear his lawyers say on the radio how much their client suffers. Well, we’re suffering too!” one of them said.
Is Belgium still opposed to the death penalty which it abolished in 1996? Apparently not, although it can only be administered if the prisoner asks for it. Bizarrely, prison authorities have placed Van Den Bleeken on suicide watch. Doesn’t this confirm that while the individual is not master of his life, the state is?
Does this change the meaning of imprisonment? Some euthanasia supporters will welcome prison euthanasia as a cost-saver. Back in 2005 Australian activist Dr Philip Nitschke mooted voluntary euthanasia as “the last frontier in prison reform” in his book Killing Me Softly. Why should jails prevent prisoners from committing suicide, if they can request to be killed?
Many words have been spilled over Belgium’s come one, come all euthanasia regime. Frank Van Den Bleeken’s case shows that there is a common thread in euthanasia bracket creep. The people who request it are people who have been abandoned by society, cast off by family, doctors and the welfare state. Euthanasia has been promoted as the ultimate expression of autonomy. But increasingly it seems to be the ultimate expression of not giving a damn about Belgium’s most vulnerable citizens.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.