February 27, 2024

Belgium’s euthanasia law under fire in European Court of Human Rights  

The case of Godelieva de Troyer shows the entrenched conflict of interest in Belgian euthanasia

Godelieva de Troyer

On April 19, 2012, a 64-year-old Belgian woman named Godelieva de Troyer was euthanised. For the doctor, Wim Distelmans, it was probably just another case. For her son, Tom Mortier, a chemistry lecturer, it came as a terrible shock. He only found out on the day after her death.

He has accused Distelmans of violating Belgium’s law on euthanasia. The case is now being considered by the European Court of Human Rights. As part of the legal proceedings, the Belgian government was forced to submit a four-page form which documents Godelieva de Troyer’s case.

It has only come to light now, leaked to the Italian website Tempi.

Although euthanasia is legal is Belgium, it is not open slather. It is regulated by a 2002 law which requires certain steps to be fulfilled so that doctors can kill people legally.

“Euthanasia registration form” 607/12 was filled out and submitted to the Euthanasia Control Commission on June 20, 2012.

There were several glaring irregularities in this process.

First, Article 5 of the Euthanasia Act specifies that the form must be completed and submitted within four working days after the death. Form 607/12 was submitted about two months late.

Second, the euthanising doctor must consult two other doctors who are independent of each other and of the patient.

In this case, the first of these two doctors was a palliative care doctor belonging to LEIF (the End of Life Information Forum), a pro euthanasia organization. The president of LEIF is (and was) Wim Distelmans. The second doctor, a psychiatrist, also belonged to LEIF. In other words, the doctors were not independent.

Nor was the patient independent. Godelieva de Troyer made a bank transfer of 2,500 Euros before she died with a note: “Thanks to the LEIF staff”.

Third, the consultation with the psychiatrist took place on January 17, a month before the woman made her initial request for euthanasia. The consultation was supposed to take place after Distelmans had seen her.

Fourth, the law specifies that the attending physician must “be certain of the patient’s constant physical or mental suffering and of the durable nature of his/her request. To this end, the physician has several conversations with the patient spread out over a reasonable period of time”. In this case, the interval between the request and the death was only 58 days – far too little for a woman suffering from complex and long-standing depression. The only treatment that Distelmans gave her was the lethal injection. 

Fifth, the Belgian government has told the ECHR that if a member of the Commission were ever involved in a particular case, he should recuse himself from reviewing it. However, it also declared that the decision of the Commission had been “unanimous” in the case of Godelieva de Troyer. In other words, Distelmans appears to have voted to approve his own decision.  

Sixth, the form states that “all treatment attempts have been exhausted. The unbearable psychological suffering can no longer be cured”. However, Godelieva de Troyer’s diary shows that she had positive thoughts about her grandchildren at the time around her death.

Mortier's attorney Robert Clarke, of the Adf International legal group, says that “the Belgian government has until September to present further arguments, then the Court will decide. The sentence is expected to arrive in 6 to 12 months. Regardless of what it may say, it is clear that Belgium has not protected de Troyer's right to life, that the law on euthanasia has been violated and that the Audit Commission does not act independently.”

It will be interesting to see what the ECHR decides. According to an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Dr Distelmans has been “responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people”. (Actually, that was his tally in 2014, six years ago.) In other jurisdictions, it might be possible for the case of Godelieva de Troyer to force a re-examination of those hundreds of cases in which Distelmans was literally jury, judge and executioner.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge 

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