DUBLIN, Ireland—Belgium is likely to become the third European country to legalize euthanasia. Assisted killing of the terminally ill is already legal in Holland and Switzerland. Last month, the Dutch euthanasia laws were formalized with a new legal requirement that places an onus on doctors to inform coroners if they have had a hand in their patients' deaths. The requirement gives recognition to the fact that for several years doctors in Holland have been killing patients with lethal injections.
An estimated 3,000 people a year die in Holland because of assisted suicides. Until now, an informal medical code of conduct covered euthanasia in the Netherlands and Dutch doctors who administered fatal injections were not prosecuted.
The normalization of euthanasia laws in Holland has now led to pressure in neighboring Belgium to allow similar measures. Belgian socialist senators are demanding a change in their country's laws to allow assisted suicides.
Dutch judicial department official Wijnand Stevens said: “The government has agreed to put the practice into law. It was part of the deal to set up the new coalition, but it will probably take two years to pass. You would probably find that euthanasia is being carried out in all countries and maybe doctors are not being prosecuted.”
In Belgium the proposal by Senators Roger Lallemand and Fred Erdman to legalize euthanasia there is likely to spark a fierce debate in the northern European country, which is nominally Catholic. During the first and second world wars, Irish people were encouraged to join the British army to help “Save Catholic Belgium from the Protestant Hun.”
However the two senators claim only 20% of Belgium's electorate are opposed to assisted killing of the terminally ill. Already one anonymous doctor confided to a Belgian newspaper that he and his colleagues have regularly administered lethal doses of pain killers to patients who ask for them.
Dr. Peggy Norris, secretary of the Worldwide Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life said: “This latest move is very worrying. In Holland, some patients have already taken to carrying certificates stating that they want to live if they become seriously ill. Already, there is evidence that some elderly people are not seeking help from their doctors when needed, because they fear they will be put to death.” Efforts to legalize euthanasia are growing across Europe — in France, for example, a recent opinion poll found that 80% of respondents, including a majority of practicing Catholics, were in favor of a terminally ill patient's “right to die.”
In Britain, the Bland ruling by the House of Lords four years ago allowed doctors to withdraw medical treatment from patients in a “persistent vegetative state.” The ruling went against Catholic teaching in that it defined food and fluids as medical treatment. Once the decision had been made, Tony Bland, who had been in a coma for over five years, died of thirst. Bland had previously been denied a natural death when doctors used antibiotics to treat a potentially life-threatening infection.
Two years ago in Ireland, the Supreme Court ruled in the Ward Case, that food and fluids could be withdrawn from a woman who had been in a coma since being seriously injured in a car accident. Staff at the Catholic hospital which cared for the unnamed ward of the court opposed the move, but the woman's family argued in favor of removing feeding tubes. The case was made more controversial by the fact that the woman's family inherited the compensation she had been awarded following her road accident.
There are now growing fears that European institutions will be used to foist euthanasia on countries, like Ireland, that have traditionally opposed the killing of the elderly and the severely
ill. Last year, the Council of Europe passed a Convention on Human Rights in Bio-Medicine which allows drug companies to experiment on severely disabled patients without their consent. Less than half the countries of Europe have ratified the convention — among those that opposed it were Britain, Ireland, and Germany. German opposition to the convention, which echoes Nazi experiments on the disabled, was particularly vehement.
Dr. Norris believes that growing demands for euthanasia are linked with the legalization of abortion and contraception in most European countries over 30 years ago: “Across Europe birth rates have fallen, as a result the demographics are skewed and Europe has an aging population.” Governments are now perceiving elderly people as a burden on the economy and they want to get rid of them.”
Norris and her colleagues have formed a new UK-based anti-euthanasia group to counter the growing threat of legalized assisted suicides. The group is named Primum Non Nocere after the medical principle of “first do no harm” contained in the Hippocratic oath.
However, she believes that abortion and the culture of death have undermined that oath: “At the British Medical Association's (BMA) annual general meeting this year, a resolution was passed that was proposed by the junior doctors which binds the BMA to holding a conference on assisted suicide next year. What is particularly worrying is that it is the junior members of the profession who are calling for such a move.
“Since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed by the UK parliament, obstetricians who conscientiously object to the killing of the unborn have found themselves barred from senior posts or professorships in teaching hospitals. The same is going to happen to gerontologists who object to euthanasia. Care for the elderly is going to become the next area where doctors with a conscientious objection need not apply.”
Dr. Denis Daley of Prima Non Nocare added: “I am particularly frightened by the attitude of younger doctors, many of whom have lost a sense of the sanctity of life. The potential effect of any decision to allow doctors to hasten the deaths of terminally ill patients can be seen as a development of UK abortion policy in the last 30 years. The 1967 Abortion Act had initially been intended to protect women whose physical or mental health would be endangered by pregnancy or motherhood. But now abortion in the UK is a means of birth control.”
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.