euthanasia, Belgium, assisted suicide, depression, mental illness, terminal illness

Euthanasia has moved in and out of public health debates for the past couple of decades. The ethics around it are decidedly murky and laws surrounding euthanasia differ. For example; the Netherlands provides legal euthanasia for adults who are ‘suffering unbearably’, physically or psychologically. In the USA, Oregon condones it for adults with terminal illnesses. In Australia, euthanasia is not legalised. However, Belgium provides euthanasia for anyone, including children, who is tired of their suffering and wants out.

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Belgium has the most relaxed euthanasia laws in the world. It is not just the terminally ill who are approved. Two cases have emerged recently, with rather surprising candidates; Dateline has followed them during their last days. Simona de Moor was a healthy 85-year-old. However, she suffered terrible grief when her daughter died from an unexpected heart attack. Although physically fine and with a mind as sharp as ever, Simona found the sadness too crushing to bear. She stated: “It’s driving me mad and I don’t want to go to a mad house, I want to die… The moment they broke the news to me, five minutes later I knew.”

Peter Ketelslegers is a 32-year-old father of two and suffers unbearable cluster headaches. They last up to three hours, several times a day, and although the headaches won’t kill him, there is no known cure. “It’s like a knife being stuck in my head. It spreads through my whole head. I hit it to get rid of the pain,” he said. “If there’s no other solution than just an injection, and gone…do I have to say it? Euthanasia.”

One of Belgium’s most outspoken advocates of euthanasia, Dr Marc Van Hoey, says he has performed over 100 euthanasia procedures (8,700 cases have been approved since 2002). He is matter of fact in his support. “A lot of elderly people are not really suffering in the narrow meaning of the word, but one plus one plus one plus one makes a whole,” he stated. “Their age gives them no future, there is nothing left anymore.”

However, these lapse laws have (of course) sparked dissent and controversy. Theo Boer, a former employee of the Dutch Euthanasia Commission, reviewed about 4,000 euthanasia cases before resigning last year. He believes that the legislation is encouraging euthanasia unnecessarily, and with limited safeguards. “Euthanasia and assisted dying increasingly are being used for patients that have months or years or even decades to live,” he said. “There were several cases where we did accept the case, where I had sleepless nights. Something is going terribly wrong.”

The case of Tom Mortier’s mother Liefe is an example of this. Liefe suffered from severe depression and despite 40 years of psychiatrists, medication, and behavioural therapy, she was pronounced incurable. Estranged from her children, she did not tell Mortier of her decision. He found out the day after she received the treatment, when the hospital called his house.

“Yeah, it was a complete shock,” Mortier said of his reaction. “Of course, I knew that my mother was suffering mentally. But she would never have done it herself… I went to talk to the physician who killed my mother and he told me he was absolutely certain my mother didn’t want to live anymore. And I said, how can you be certain?”

How can we be certain indeed? Should we end unbearable pain, or be cautious of the multiple mental health issues that may lead to a flippant decision? Readily accessible euthanasia can be exploited very easily. Considering the vast scope of human suffering, I do not feel like I am in a position to have an opinion on this one (that’s something I thought I’d never say). But I’m glad Australia’s euthanasia laws are black, white, and stringent. If put in that position, I don’t think I could bear the responsibility of making the choice.

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