Strange Happenings in Belgium

There’s a part of me that recognises this story as having been in the news before – but I don’t think I’ve written on it, so here we go.  It’s from the Telegraph, under the headline “Son Challenges Belgian Law after Mother’s ‘Mercy Killing'” – which is a reasonably pithy summation of what’s at issue.  A man, Tom Mortier, is attempting to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights that would have Belgian laws on euthanasia scrutinised and – he hopes – declared contrary to the ECHR:

A Belgian man is going to the European Court of Human Rights after his depressed mother was killed by lethal injection under the country’s liberal euthanasia laws. […]

Mr Mortier is trying to take his mother’s case to the Strasbourg court under the “right to life” legislation in the European Convention of Human Rights. He hopes, at the very least, to trigger some debate in his country, and secure greater oversight in the way the existing rules are applied.

OK – so it’s not clear whether he’s actually got the Court to agree to hear his case (which is what “going to the ECtHR” suggests in ordinary usage), or whether he’s still attempting to get it to agree to hear it.  If it’s the latter, then he might be going to the ECtHR in the sense of being physically present – but that’s not going to achieve much.  The Telegraph isn’t clear on this.  Oh, well.  But is there anything of substance to his case?  It might have substance and still fail, of course – it’s perfectly possible for a court to say that they can see a person’s point, but that it’s not sufficiently powerful; but if it has no substance, then it ought to fail.

Based on the Telegraph‘s report, it seems that there really isn’t much substance to it.  This is not to say that there’s none – but there’s not much.  And, as we’ll see, it’s a bit strange in some ways.

In a case that raises new questions over the extent of so called “mercy killings”, Tom Mortier’s mother Godelieva De Troyer, 64, was killed by lethal injection at her own request in a Brussels hospital in April 2012.

Doctors agreed to terminate her life after ruling that she suffered from “untreatable depression”, despite the fact that she was physically healthy.

The killing horrified her son, who was not contacted until after his mother had died, when a hospital rang asking him to retrieve her body from the morgue.

So far, so good.  For any medical decision whatsoever, we’d want to be as sure as possible that the person making it is capable of doing so; and we might set higher standards the more serious the decision.  You might be able to make decisions about having a verruca frozen off but unable to make decisions about life and death.  One of the things that could potentially be important here is your mental health: it’s possible that a person’s depression is such as to mean that they aren’t capable of making a particular decision, or a particular kind of decision, or perhaps any decisions at all.  Fair enough.

But it doesn’t follow from that that depression always undermines the ability.  It might not.  On top of that, even if someone is rendered utterly incapable of any decision by their depression, it doesn’t follow that they’re always in such a state.  A mental illness may ebb and flow – it might be amenable to pharmacological intervention, or just have phases of its own.  Either way, even if a person is incapable at some stages, it doesn’t follow that they can’t say at others that they’re fed up with the whole thing, and prefer not to live the life they have.  Merely being depressed or mentally ill isn’t enough to invalidate a request: that mental illness may be an explanation for rather than a cause of the desire for euthanasia.

I don’t know if that’d be true of de Troyer’s case, but it could be.

Nor do I see why physical illness is a necessary criterion for assistance to die.  I explained why here:

[A]rguments about physical distress seem to me to rely – to at least some extent – on a notion of psychological distress anyway.  After all, a person who was terminally ill but unmoved by that fact would – presumably – be less likely to seek assistance than someone for whom it did make some kind of emotional impact.  There’s likely to be more to it in real life; but I think that, all the same, some kind of psychological distress is reasonably likely to be found in people who seek assistance to die for ostensibly physical reasons.  That being the case, it’s not clear why psychological distress mightn’t be a reason to seek assistance in its own right.

The long and the short of it is that Belgium’s laws are not obviously morally or legally flawed.  Mortier may have a point, but it’s not a powerful one as it stands – not unless he can show that his mother really wasn’t capable of making the decision, and that her request having been granted was not simply a deeply regrettable error of judgement, but something more fundamental about the law.  Absent either of those, there doesn’t seem to be much of a claim.

And then… something strange happens.

But the trend has alarmed Mr Mortier, a teacher, who says the rules no longer respect the feelings of relatives.


Does he mean that relatives should get a veto over the preferences of people whose desires we must assume (in the absence of further evidence) to be compentetly articulated?  That can’t be right.  So he must mean that the feelings of relatives count when the patient is incapable of making the decision, mustn’t he?  But then, why relatives?  Speculating wildly, if a son is not contacted until after his mother’s death, mightn’t that be a sign that they weren’t so close?  Maybe that she’d’ve preferred that he not be involved?  Why, in short, should a genetic link be that morally important?  I don’t get it.  And suppose that some relatives decide that they’d rather be without Uncle Sid, who’s been away with the fairies and a bit of a burden for years?  In that case, we’d presumably want to say that the feelings of relatives count for very little, if anything.

Maybe it’s the Telegraph‘s reporting that’s at fault.  But it is perplexing.

Not as odd as this bit, though:

The doctor who carried out euthanasia on Mr Mortier’s mother was Professor Wim Distelmans, an oncologist (cancer specialist) and expert in palliative care. A charismatic advocate for the right to elect for death in cases of “unbearable suffering,” he is something of a celebrity figure in Belgium.

He tours the country, dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt, giving joke-filled talks at rallies on how to request euthanasia. He is estimated to have administered euthanasia to more than 1,000 people.

Last year, he came under fire after organising a tour to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which he described in a leaflet as an “inspiring venue” for discussions on the euthanasia issues. He said the camp was “the pre-eminent symbol of a degrading end of life”.

The Auschwitz bit isn’t relevant to the main story, so it does look like poisoning the well.


But if it’s true… if he really did go there for the sake of a stunt about euthanasia… it seems to be astonishingly, bizarrely, misguided.  Only an imbecile would do that.

Don’t have done that, Wim.

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