Dutch experience sparks euthanasia debate in Europe

Euthanasia is still banned in most EU countries, but is now legal in Holland and Belgium. However, legalization seems to have brought problems with how to enforce the right to die.

Tikva Roosemont lives the life of a baby, even though she is 13 years old. She was born with part of her brain missing. For her parents, it is not their daughter’s disabilities that are hard to deal with – rather society’s attitude.

”We had several instances when we were walking with our child on the road somewhere in the city or outside the city and strange people would come to us and they asked us, when they saw our child is severely handicapped, they asked us why don’t you have euthanasia with this child,” Tikva’s father Lionel Roosemont says.

In Belgium, with their written consent, a patient can be euthanized if they are in constant physical or psychological pain. With a non-terminal illness like depression, a one-month waiting period and the approval of three doctors’ is needed.

According to the law, after euthanasia is carried out, doctors have to declare on the official death certificate that the patient died of natural causes. Later, they have to report the case to the Federal Control Commission. Doctors say that this is to protect the right of the patient, for instance if he or she doesn’t want their relatives to know about the decision they have taken. Critics, however, say that this is a dangerous practice, which opens the door to abuse.

Law Professor Etienne Montero calls this a legal lie, and says no doctor has been prosecuted for failing to tell the committee.

“It’s very difficult to control this law. Firstly, the control is administered after the person is already dead. Also, the doctor who performs the euthanasia should fill in the report,” explains Montero.

“But I think that it’s quite clear that a doctor will never report on something he did wrong,” he adds.

In 2007 alone, 495 people were euthanized in Belgium. However many say the real number is much higher.

Retired doctor Arsene Mullie says he used to perform euthanasia before it became legal, but only in cases of severe suffering and when the patient asked for it.

“The reality is that we did give euthanasia, I was then an anesthesiologist, intensive care doctor and also in palliative care, about two-three times a year doing euthanasia without the law,” says Dr Mullie, adding they didn’t report those cases when the law didn’t exist.

Mullie supports the idea of expanding the law and also allowing children of any age the right to die.

While Belgian MP Alexandra Colen thinks the law should be abolished as euthanasia is often carried out without patients' consent.

“The person is most expensive in the last six months of their lives, costs most on the health care systems. The pressure is there, especially in hospices and hospitals [which] all have tight budgets. The pressure is there, of course, to reduce the length of their lives even by a couple of days – already massive savings,” she says.

Following violations of the law, some parties sought to extend it instead of restricting it. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize euthanasia. Then Belgium adopted it. Later the Netherlands expanded the law to allow it to be used on children. The question now is: will Belgium follow in the footsteps of its neighbor?

The world's first euthanasia legislation was enacted in 1995 in the Northern Territory of Australia, called the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. In 1997 the legislation was overturned by Australia’s Federal Parliament.

At the moment, there are six countries where euthanasia is legal. They are Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Switzerland in Europe, Thailand in Asia and in two states of the U.S., Oregon and Washington.