After controversial legislation legalizing euthanasia for minors was ratified in 2014, Belgium has been one of the most progressive countries in regard to right-to-die legislation. Now, it seems that the issue has come to a head between Belgium and the Catholic Church, which offered the most substantial bulwark both when euthanasia was legalized in 2002 and during the aforementioned law.
On December 26, after a lengthy interview with the daily newspaper Het Belang van Limburg, the new leader of the Belgian Catholic Church, Josef De Kesel, offered his opinion on abortion and euthanasia, both of which receive popular support in Belgium. “I think we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it” the archbishop said. “I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals.”
Progressive politicians met his declaration with amazement. “We were happy when he arrived, he seemed like an open man and I had great hopes for him,” said Jacqueline Herremans, who heads the Association for the Right to Die with Dignity. “I didn’t expect comments like this.” De Kesel is seen as more of a moderate, especially compared to his conservative predecessor, Andre-Joseph Leonard.
The original 2002 law created provisions only for terminally ill patients. While religious leaders have always strongly opposed euthanasia, public acceptance of euthanasia has grown in the 14 years since Belgian legalized the practice. In 2013, two 45 year-old twin brothers who were deaf from birth were allowed to take the lethal injection after they started to go blind and told their doctors they could not bear to not see each other. In 2014, a serial murderer and rapist received approval to end his life after he argued that he could not overcome his violent sexual impulses. This decision was later reversed, however, partly because 15 other convicts also applied for the procedure. Finally, in 2014, Belgium granted minors the ability to seek approval for euthanasia, provided that they obtained parental consent.
De Kesel’s comments come as a Catholic hospice is being sued for refusing to allow a patient to receive a lethal dosage inside their facility. Belgian news outlets reported on January 2 that a 74 year-old woman who was terminally ill with metastatic cancer and living in the St. Augustine residential care center in Diest was restricted access to euthanasia on the premises of the Catholic facility.
Her request was originally submitted in 2011 and processed over the next six months before the hospital denied access to the facility to the doctor who would be performing the procedure allegedly days before it was scheduled. It is not clear whether St. Augustine’s had been made formally aware that one of their patients was seeking access to euthanasia inside their premises. The woman was eventually transported to a private residence, where the procedure was carried out. Her family is suing the hospital, arguing that the initial restriction to euthanasia caused the patient undue physical and psychological suffering. The case comes nearly four and a half years after the death took place and has been postponed twice before, although there is no clear evidence why the two postponements took place.
The crux of the legal battle depends on the interpretation of Article 14 of the 2002 act that decriminalized euthanasia, which includes a conscientious objection clause for physicians opposed to euthanasia. Fernand Keuleneer, a former member of the commission that reviews euthanasia requests and the likely representation for St. Augustine’s, has said that the law implies a conscientious objection for institutions as well as individual physicians. He argues that although the law decriminalizes the practice of euthanasia, it does not create a fundamental right to euthanasia.