Belgium discusses euthanasia for the mentally ill

There is a clash between defenders and opponents of this idea. They argue about whether hopeless suffering is subjective, and ask -- can we decide whose suffering is unbearable enough?  

Marjan Justaert
Marjan Justaert De Standaard, Belgium
Source: De Standaard
Belgium discusses euthanasia for the mentally ill - NewsMavens
Syringe. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Recently, the Belgian Brothers of Charity­ -- a Roman Catholic group of monks and associate members active in the fields of education and health care -- have decided to allow euthanasia in their psychiatric health centers. This act triggered a lot of criticism, including from the Vatican. Brussels-based doctor Bea Verbeeck, who is a so-called “LEIF-arts” for assisting the dying, defends this decision.

“Critics don't have a clue about euthanasia in the case of psychiatric suffering,” she claims. “A person who enters this room does not leave with an immediate 'yes'.” An average procedure takes several months, and there is nothing amateur about it. The legal path entails a number of criteria. I never decide alone.”

Of course, it is not easy to keep a balance between respecting personal freedom and ensuring that people who request euthanasia have the mental capacity to make that decision. This is why doctors conduct a prolonged interview with patients and search for alternative solutions. Sometimes the conversation itself proves helpful.

“People who request euthanasia have a long history of suffering,” explains Bea Verbeeck. Death seems like a relief to them. How can we decide whether their suffering is 'unbearable enough'? We can only say if their condition is still treatable or not. We don’t have the right to judge suffering.”

"The huge taboo around euthanasia renders us incapable of discussing ending our lives openly, even though such a debate could yield many helpful perspectives," the doctor claims. "We can do it in a humane way which is better than driving people to commit suicide.”

Critics don't have a clue of euthanasia in case of psychiatric suffering

  • Belgium is one of the few countries that allow doctors to assist patients in killing themselves at their request. It also grants the procedure to people with mental illnesses. This stems from a belief that people with psychiatric illnesses should be afforded the same rights as patients suffering from physical ones.
  • Every year, nearly 2.000 procedures of euthanasia are conducted in Belgium. In 40 cases -- the reason is psychological suffering.
  • In 2014, Belgium expanded its original euthanasia law to permit the procedure for children, although not in the cases of psychological suffering.
  • The procedures are executed by 'LEIF'-doctors. Some other (mostly Catholic) doctors have trouble accepting this.
  • Earlier this year, the Belgian Brothers of Charity changed their position on euthanasia. They decided to allow it in their centers, under strict conditions. In spite of the Roman Catholic Church's anger, they reaffirmed their position last month.
  • Ever since then, there's a (renewed) clash between the “progressive” and the more “conservative” doctors about euthanasia in the case of mental illness. Dozens of academics and health care providers are voicing their concerns.

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