An investigation is underway in Belgium after it emerged that medical staff used a pillow to ‘euthanise’ a terminally ill female patient. The 36-year-old woman, who was suffering from cancer, according to reports, had her life ended by suffocation after the previously administered legal drugs failed to work.
An investigation is currently underway into the case, which was reported by Belgian media earlier this month.
Belgium became the second country worldwide to legalise euthanasia, following on the heels of the Netherlands, in May 2002.
Almost 30,000 people have died by the legal practice in the country, according to the latest official statistics from Belgian authorities – with just under 3,000 deaths by euthanasia recorded last year alone, up from just over 1,000 cases in 2011.
In March 2021, Belgium joined a handful of European countries – the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Spain – in legalising active euthanasia – the intentional ending of a person’s suffering. In this process, a doctor or third party is permitted to inject a fatal substance directly, bringing about the person’s death.
This less common form of assisted death differs from medically assisted suicide, which allows the provision of assistance to the person seeking to end their life, with the means only allowed to be taken by the person themself.
Reports from the country state that the woman was visited by a doctor and two nurses, at her home, where she lived with her partner and 15-year-old daughter. The woman’s family left the home to avoid having to witness her death, which they expected to be peaceful.
Media outlets in the country, Sud Info and RTL, reported earlier this month that the woman, who was suffering from terminal cancer, chose to be euthanized back in March 2022. At the time, her condition had deteriorated significantly.
The young mother, named Alexina Wattiez, was from the Oupeye region of the country, was diagnosed with cancer in December 2021, and was given one year to live. In great pain, it is reported that following a consultation with a doctor, it was agreed that drugs would be administered to sedate the woman and end her life.
RTL reports that the woman was visited by the family’s doctor along with two nurses. In Belgium, euthanasia is allowed to be performed in a range of settings, including at home, in a hospital environment, and in nursing homes. However, after the combination of drugs were administered, the sedation did not go as planned – with the quantity of the products injected insufficient to end the mother of one’s life.
Le Soir, a french-language daily newspaper in Belgium, reported on the details of the case, carrying comments from the deceased woman’s partner, Christophe Stulens.
“After a short night’s sleep, I was woken up by a nurse who told me that Alexina was doing very badly,” Stulens said, according to the paper. “Then the doctor took some syringes and we were asked if we wanted to say goodbye.”
Stulens and the couple’s daughter, Tracy, were asked to wait outside, and waited outside on the terrace. A death they believed would be peaceful, quickly became unsettling, and they heard Alexina.
“I recognized her voice,” Stulens said. “Afterwards we saw her lying on the bed with her eyes and mouth open.”
“The caregivers on site had to use a pillow to end Alexina’s life,” local media reported. Police were notified of the nature of the death two days before the funeral of the young mother, and a post mortem was requested, which revealed indications of suffocation, according to 7sur7.
“Alexina wanted to sleep peacefully, but apparently there were too few resources,” Stulens told Le Soir.
Stulens filed the complaint and is suing the doctor and two nurses, according to reports. The Public Prosecution Service of Liège has now launched a murder investigation into the death.
The lawyer representing the family, Renaud Molders-Pierre,said that they are not seeking money, describing the circumstances around the case as inconceivable for the family left behind.
“Their goal is not to demand sanctions but to provoke a debate and that this type of affair never happens again,” he said. “Could you imagine that your mother or your wife could end up suffocated by a cushion as part of her end of life? I think no one can conceive and imagine that.”
Jacques Brotchi, Belgian politician, doctor, and member of the Control and Evaluation Commission on Euthanasia, condemned the case, telling RTL info:
“What happened is not euthanasia. Such a definition of this terrible situation devalues the gesture of euthanasia, which accompanies a person to the end without pain.”
Sudinfo, another local media outlet, spoke to someone on behalf of the doctor, who described the ‘distress’ of the nurses who were involved in ending the woman’s life.
“The nurses were distraught and they called the doctor, my client,” Serge Douin said, adding, “he only injected products to relieve the patient’s suffering.”
The investigation into the case continues.
Belgium’s euthanasia law has come under the scrutiny of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Last October, the ECHR ruled that the country violated the right to life in the 2012 euthanasia of Godelieva de Troyer, a 64-year-old woman, who died in 2012.
The case brought before the court, Mortier v. Belgium, detailed how de Troyer suffered treatment-resistant depression and a personality disorder. The case was brought by her son, who only learned of his mother’s euthanasia the day after it was performed.
Tom de Troyer claimed a violation of the right to life and his right to respect for private and family life, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. While Europe’s top court ruled that Belgium failed to conduct a proper investigation into the circumstances of de Troyer’s death, the judgement dismissed a legal challenge to the country’s legal euthanasia framework.
The case cast a spotlight on euthanasia cases performed for psychological distress. As detailed in an article published in the Lancet medical journal, 370 patients were euthanised in Belgium between 2002 and 2021 for unbearable suffering caused by a psychiatric disorder.
Another case, brought before the Belgian Constitutional Court, similarly sparked concern over euthanasia for mental suffering. The case concerned the euthanasia of a 38-year-old woman with a personality disorder. The three doctors involved were acquitted, however, the performing physician in the case is still subject to a civil trial, which as detailed in the Lancet, prompted a judge to put preliminary questions before the constitutional court regarding the sanctions which apply when the law is breached.
It comes as the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Assisted Dying is set to recommence hearings, which will examine issues around changing the law here.
At the end of May, the Irish Association for Palliative Care were among those to voice opposition to proposals to introduce euthanasia and assisted suicide in Ireland.
In its position paper submitted to the committee, IAPC said that keeping assisted suicide illegal “acts as a form of protection for vulnerable patients who may be basing their decisions to die on confounding addressable factors, such as a sense of being burdensome.”
They said the provision of palliative care provides sick patients with the means to die with dignity, stressing that good care should lead to minimal pain or discomfort, as opposed to ending the life of the suffering person.