Europe’s top human rights court has ruled that Belgium violated the right to life in a 2012 euthanasia case against a doctor who killed a woman who was suffering from depression.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled this week that Belgium failed to conduct a proper investigation into the circumstances of the euthanasia of Godelieva de Troyer. The doctor who euthanized de Troyer did not have anyone inform her son until the day after her death.
The ECHR ruled in favour of Tom Mortier, son of Godelieva de Troyer, who died following a lethal injection in April 2012, aged 64. De Troyer’s euthanasia was conducted on the basis that she had received a diagnosis of “incurable depression”.
In the case of Mortier v. Belgium, the ECHR found that Belgium violated the European Convention on Human Rights due to its failure to properly examine the worrying circumstances which led to her euthanasia. De Troyer, a Belgium citizen who was not terminally ill, was killed by oncologist Wim Distelmans, because of “untreatable depression” after receiving consent from three other physicians who had no previous material involvement with the mother’s care.
De Troyer’s doctor of more than 20 years had refused her request to be euthanized in 2011, but following a donation of €2,500 to Life End Information Forum, an organisation co-founded by Distelmans, he carried out her request to die because of the depression. The donation gave rise to an apparent conflict of interest.
Nobody made contact with Mortier before the death of his mother, even though Mortier insisted that his mother’s depression was not only largely the result of a break-up with a man his mother had been seeing, but also due to her ‘feelings of distance’ from her family.
Distelmans was not a psychiatrist, and none of the doctors involved had any enduring doctor-patient relationship with de Troyer. Additionally, the commission established by the Belgian government to investigate any failure to observe the euthanasia law, has been led since its creation by Distelmans. Despite evidence of widespread abuse of the law, the commission failed to refer the devastating case to the prosecutor.
Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom Intl (ADF) represented de Troyer’s son in the “major case on the right to life”.
“People suffering from depression need compassion, love, and sound treatment, not a prescription for death,” said ADF International Senior Counsel Roger Kiska. “The state has a duty to put the necessary safeguards in place so that suffering patients receive adequate care from doctors and an opportunity to consult with family members”.
While the judgement dismissed a challenge to Belgium’s legal framework on euthanasia, ADF said that the case sends a very clear warning about the dangers of euthanasia, and the “fiction of legal safeguards” surrounding the procedure.
Belgium has long had one of the most permissive laws on euthanasia. In 2002, the country formally legalised euthanasia by way of the Belgian Euthanasia Act, which permits adults who are suffering both physicially and mentally to end their lives. In February 2014, Belgium sent shockwaves through the western world when it became the first country to allow voluntary child euthanasia without any age restriction.
Under the law, a child must ask to be euthanised, and verify that they understand what will happen, with parents also consenting to the euthanasia of the child, who must have a terminal or incurable disease, be ‘near death’, or suffering from chronic pain.
Violation of Article 2 of the ECHR
The Court held that there was a violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights that everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. This judgement was regard to the way in which the facts surrounding de Troyer’s euthanasia were dealt with by Belgium’s Federal Commission for the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia and the promptness of a criminal trial following de Troyer’s death, ADF explained.
In its ruling, the Court said: “taking into account the crucial role played by the Commission in the a posteriori control of euthanasia, the Court considers that the control system established in the present case did not ensure its independence”.
“It therefore found that Belgium failed to fulfil its positive procedural obligation under Article 2 of the Convention both because of the lack of independence of the Commission and due to lack of promptness of the criminal investigation. The holdings that there was no violation of Belgium’s legislative framework and no violation of Article 2 for the conditions of the euthanasia were five votes to two,” ADF explained.
It did not, however, rule that Belgium’s legislative framework for the practise of euthanasia had been violated.
Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International, who represented Tom Mortier before the Court, said:
“We welcome the Court’s finding of an Article 2 violation, which demonstrates the inadequacy of ‘safeguards’ for the intentional ending of life. The decision counters the notion that there is a so-called ‘right to die,’ and lays bare the horrors that inevitably unfold across society when euthanasia is made legal. Unfortunately, while the Court indicated that more ‘safeguarding’ is an appropriate solution to protecting life, in its own ruling it makes clear that laws and protocols were indeed insufficient to protect the rights of Tom’s mother.
“It is unfortunate that the Court dismissed the challenge to the Belgian legal framework; however, the takeaway is that the ‘safeguards’ touted as offering protection to vulnerable people should trigger more caution toward euthanasia in Europe, and the world. The reality is that there are no ‘safeguards’ that can mitigate the dangers of the practice once it is legal. Nothing can bring back Tom’s mother, but we hope this decision offers Tom some small measure of justice”.
‘The big problem in our society is that apparently we have lost the meaning of taking care of eachother’
ADF said the realities of the case highlight the “myriad of dangers that arise when euthanasia is legalised”, and make it clear that even ‘legal safeguards’ are not enough to protect the right to life when the practice of deliberately ending a life is legally available.
“In this case, Tom’s mother was able to approach the country’s leading euthanasia advocate who, despite being a cancer specialist, ultimately agreed to euthanise her. Over a period of just a few months, she made a financial payment to his organisation and was referred by him to see other doctors who were also part of the same association despite a requirement for independent opinions in the case of individuals not expected to die soon,” ADF added.
“The big problem in our society is that apparently we have lost the meaning of taking care of eachother”, Mr. Mortier said, according to ADF.
Concluding his comments, Robert Clarke of ADF added: “This ruling serves as a stark reminder. It is clear that the so-called ‘safeguards’ failed because intentional killing can never be safe. We must be unfailing in our commitment to advocating for the right to life and the truth that people have inherent dignity no matter their age or health condition”.
The ruling comes as Irish Bishops wanted that elderly people in Ireland are worried about euthanasia proposals. In their pastoral letter for this year’s ‘Day for Life’, which was read to mass-goers on Sunday, Ireland’s Catholic Bishops said they share the concerns of older people here who feel concerned and vulnerable when they hear proposals for the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
“We share their concerns. In better valuing older persons, we need to find new ways of building bridges by our actions,” the bishops said, as they called on people to engage in political debate on providing adequately resourced care to the elderly so that nobody feels like a burden on society, and to challenge politicians and the healthcare system to provide accessible palliative care for all the dying.