How euthanasia has revived the death penalty

Now Belgium and Canada are euthanising prisoners. This is chilling.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics World

The Belgian state has once again authorised the killing of a prisoner, 105 years after its last peacetime execution.

Geneviève Lhermitte was an infamous murderer. She killed her son and four daughters, aged between three and 14, in Nivelles, Belgium on 28 February 2007. On 28 February 2023, she was euthanised, after she successfully invoked her ‘right to die’.

Lhermitte’s crimes were horrifying. On that dreadful day 16 years ago, she locked the door to their home and slit the throat of each of her children. At her trial in 2008, Lhermitte explained how she invited her daughter, Myriam, into her office, telling her to put a blindfold on for a ‘surprise’. Lhermitte then hit her over the head with a marble plaque, knocking her out before killing her with a knife. She murdered all five of her children that night.

At her trial, Lhermitte’s lawyers argued that she was mentally disturbed and should not be sent to prison. But the jury found her guilty of premeditated murder and she was sentenced to life in jail. Having served 11 years, Lhermitte was moved to a psychiatric hospital in 2019.

Belgian law allows for people to choose to be euthanised if they are deemed to be experiencing ‘unbearable’ physical and / or psychological suffering. They must be conscious of their decision and be able to express their request in a reasoned and consistent manner. According to Lhermitte’s lawyer, she fulfilled all the criteria and received the approval of doctors.

This case exposes the logical and ethical problems of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Belgium and elsewhere. And, above all, it undermines one of assisted-suicide campaigners’ central claims – that euthanasia is an act of ‘autonomy and choice’.

After all, how can a prisoner – or someone in a psychiatric facility – make a free and uncoerced decision to die? A prisoner cannot even have a private consultation with a doctor, as guards must always be present. A prisoner is told when to get up, when to eat, when to go to bed. His or her entire life is coerced.

Belgium is not the only nation to euthanise prisoners. In Canada, where assisted suicide is also offered as a medical treatment, three prisoners have been euthanised to date. The story of one of them, known only as ‘patient one’, illustrates the key problem with this practice. He informed his parole officer that he wished to receive medical assistance in dying (MAID) and was advised to first apply for compassionate release. This was denied, at which point he submitted a request for MAID, which was accepted. He was shackled and guards were present during the assessment of his request.

Canada’s federal prison ombudsman was sufficiently disturbed by the three cases that he said in 2020 that MAID should no longer be accessible to prisoners, because incarceration compromises individuals’ ability to consent to euthanasia. Indeed, euthanasia in these circumstances essentially comes down to prison officials and doctors making a subjective judgement about the hopelessness of a prisoner’s continued existence.

Euthanasia for prisoners looks, in many ways, like a new death penalty. Last year, Belgium’s Office of Foreign Affairs ostentatiously announced that ‘fighting the death penalty is a priority of the Belgian human-rights policy’, calling the death penalty a ‘serious violation of… human dignity’. But Lhermitte’s death shows us that a de facto death penalty – so long as the prisoner desires it – is now operative in Belgium for the first time since 1950.

It seems likely that, following the case of Lhermitte, more prisoners will come forward with their own euthanasia requests. We’ve seen this happen before. Back in 2014, the Belgian authorities approved the euthanasia request of serial rapist and murderer Frank Van Den Bleeken. This prompted 15 other prisoners to submit their own requests. The decision to grant Van Den Bleeken euthanasia was subsequently overturned the following year by the then justice minister, who ruled that prisoners did not have a ‘right to die’.

Nearly a decade on, Belgian ministers have now reinstated the death penalty. They’ve just disguised it as compassionate, progressive, forward-thinking euthanasia, rather than the cold-blooded executions they otherwise condemn.

Euthanising prisoners is the inevitable consequence of legalising assisted suicide. Assisted suicide essentially redefines death as an acceptable medical treatment for suffering. In turn, denying someone that treatment is presented as cruel and inhumane. It is by this logic that euthanasia is now being extended to prisoners – on the grounds that they are suffering psychologically.

The result is capital punishment being resurrected in a faux-progressive guise.

Kevin Yuill is the author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation.

Picture by: YouTube / RTBF Info.

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Topics Politics World


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