Belgium’s insane right-to-die laws
Accepting a mentally ill prisoner's request to be executed shows up the madness of Belgium's euthanasia laws.
Nearly 20 years after Belgium abolished the death penalty – and 64 years after it’s last execution – the Belgian courts have agreed to a prisoner’s request for a state execution. The prisoner, Frank Van Den Bleeken, sought the right to be executed because he was ‘suffering unbearably’ from a life-long psychiatric condition, according to his lawyer Jos Vander Velpen.
Despite a verdict of diminished responsibility – Van Den Bleeken was declared insane – he was imprisoned for murder and serial rape 30 years ago. He argued that he will never be released from jail because he is unable to control his violent sexual impulses. His lawyer declined to elaborate on his client’s psychiatric condition or to discuss when the medically assisted suicide would take place, citing his client’s right to privacy. Van Den Bleeken complained in a television documentary that ‘my life has now absolutely no meaning. They may as well put a flower pot here.’
Last year, Belgium extended the right to request euthanasia to children of any age; this year, it has extended this right to prisoners. Though the term ‘slippery slope’ may not be ideal, anyone who doubts that once voluntary euthanasia is allowed, more and more groups will demand it, has only to look at Belgium’s recent history of voluntary deaths. After Van Den Bleeken was granted his request, 15 more prisoners immediately lodged requests for euthanasia.
Does granting a right to request euthanasia to prisoners represent the return of the death penalty for Belgium? Some claim that the death penalty, certainly as it’s applied in the US, is very different from Belgium’s euthanasia laws. In Vice, Natasha Lennard wrote: ‘Belgium’s liberal euthanasia laws, broad enough to encompass mental anguish and the imprisoned, in some ways stand as an illustrative counterpoint to a US system that maintains an archaic enforcement of barbaric death penalties and (for the most part) a refusal to grant an individual’s liberty to end his or her own life, even in cases of terminal disease.’
For Lennard, then, Belgium is creating a liberal system of execution as opposed to the America’s illiberal system of execution. This comparison demands a bit more interrogation. Many US death-row prisoners decline to challenge their death sentences and assent to execution. Is this acceptable to Lennard and other euthanasia-liberals? In the jurisdictions in the US that have the death penalty, execution only takes place once a jury of 12 of the accused’s peers decide that the prisoner is guilty. The elected state legislature decides the penalty, and an elected judge hands down the sentence. Numerous appeals may be lodged and the sentence may be commuted by another elected official. In Belgium, doctors will execute a madman (by the same method as in most US states) when he declares that he is suffering unbearable psychic pain, that his condition is incurable, and that he therefore wants to be killed. Which system is more barbaric – Belgium’s or America’s?
We have here a peculiar inversion of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In the novel, a self-diagnosis of insanity demonstrated sanity; in Van Den Bleeken’s case, though he was declared insane and therefore not responsible for his actions, his wish to kill himself is somehow seen as sensible and reasoned. This is despite the fact that he himself argues that he is too mentally ill ever to be freed from prison. Carine Brochier, a project manager with the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics, is surely right to say that if the original sentence was correct, Van Den Bleeken should not be allowed to die but should instead receive proper treatment.
Of course, some might think ‘good riddance’. It is very difficult to sympathise with Van Den Bleeken’s existential angst or his whining about his ‘inhumane’ treatment. He is a prisoner because he committed horrific crimes. His feelings were not pre-eminent when he was tried and sentenced; nor should they be now. The sisters of one of Van Den Bleeken’s victims, a woman he raped and killed while being temporarily out of prison in 1989, seemed appalled by the decision. ‘Let him rot in his cell’, the sisters told Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. What does it say about the Belgian justice system when prisoners may singlehandedly overturn the will of parliament, which has decided that particular sentences fit particular crimes?
The motivation behind supporting Van Den Bleeken is ostensibly compassion, but the outcome of Belgium’s liberal experiment is death on demand – for anyone, and for any reason. Even if you’re clinically insane! Because once you admit that death is an appropriate treatment for some, how can you deny it to others? Jaqueline Herremans, president of Belgium’s right-to-die association and government-appointed member of Belgium’s euthanasia commission, said of Van Den Bleeken’s request: ‘Regardless, he’s a human being; a human being who has the right to demand euthanasia.’ So slippery is the slope, it seems, that euthanasia has become a right to be extended to all human beings.
The problem at the base of these disturbing events is the collapse of authority in Belgium. As the German daily Die Welt noted after the decision to extend euthanasia to children of any age, Belgium is now a ‘failed state’. A handful of moral entrepreneurs have pushed at an open door allowing situations whereby a prisoner – who has been declared insane and still insists he is insane – both diagnoses himself as incurable and pronounces his own sentence, overturning a ban on executions implemented by parliament. Prepubescent children, whose parents ordinarily tell them what clothes to wear, can now decide they wish to die, and, if they can argue for it consistently, they, too, will be executed.
It’s almost ironic that at the same time as the death penalty is being challenged in the United States, Belgium has reintroduced it at the request of a prisoner. Had Belgium not allowed self-willed deaths, it would not be frightened to deny euthanasia to those who, by definition, are not competent to make such decisions – like children and insane prisoners. Such examples are very important for those in other nations considering legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His latest book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) He will be speaking at the debate Belgium’s ‘right to die’ for children: a slippery slope? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.
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