Since 2002 a law was passed in Belgium that allowed people to be euthanased when they were suffering intractable and unbearable pain. Today euthanasia is more often granted to people suffering from mental illnesses like chronic depression, schizophrenia, chronic anorexia nervosa and borderline personality disorder, etc.
The law requires that a patient’s free decision has to be established before medical doctors can give the lethal injections.
My mother suffered from chronic depression. Two years ago she broke off all contact with me. In April 2012 she was euthanased at the hospital of Vrije Universiteit Brussel (the Free University of Brussels).
I was not involved in the decision-making process and the doctor who gave her the injection never contacted me.
Since then, my life has changed considerably. Up until now, I am still trying to understand how it is possible for euthanasia to be performed on physically healthy people without even contacting their children. The spokesman of the university hospital told me that everything happened according to my mother’s “free choice”. After my mother’s death, I talked to the doctor who gave her the injection and he told me that he was “absolutely certain” my mother didn’t want to live anymore.
The death of my mother has triggered a lot of questions. How is it possible that people can be euthanased in Belgium without close family or friends being contacted? Why does my country give medical doctors the exclusive power to decide over life and death? How do we judge what “unbearable suffering” is? What are the criteria to decide what “unbearable suffering” is? Can we rely on such a judgment for a mentally ill person?
After all, can a mentally ill person make a “free choice”? Why didn’t the doctors try to arrange a meeting between our mother and her children? How can a medical doctor be “absolutely certain” that his/her patient doesn’t want to live anymore? Why can’t we bear to see people suffering?
Some doctors at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel believe that euthanasia should be offered to anyone who wishes to end his/her life because of unbearable and meaningless suffering. All objections and restraints from the community are regarded as immoral and unjustifiable. These doctors are nowadays even discussing euthanasia for people suffering from autism and youngsters who are suicidal.
What scares me is that these doctors also seem to be controlling the Belgium media. Is this the society we want to evolve to? Are we going to control suicides in the nearby future by putting people out of their misery before they can do it themselves — instead of investing in mental health and palliative care?
I believe that the appeal to “free choice” is becoming a dogma of convenience. We are rapidly changing into a society of absolute loneliness where we don’t want to take care of each other any more. And when we suffer, we ask our doctors to kill us, breaking fundamental biological and human laws. However, by doing this, we create new and insoluble problems.
Therefore, we really should rethink what we believe in. Is it life or is it death?
Tom Mortier PhD lectures in chemistry at Leuven University College. This article was written with the assistance of Dr Steven Bieseman and Professor Emeritus Herman De Dijn. It was originally published in the Belgian medical journal Artsenkrant.