May 16, 2002
BRUSSELS, Belgium (Reuters Health)
Belgian doctors are opposed to a new law expected to be passed by the country's lower house of parliament this week that will make it the second nation in Europe, after the Netherlands, to decriminalise euthanasia.
The government sought advice from a wide spectrum of medical experts when drawing up the bill, which was approved by the Senate last October. But doctors from the Belgian Medical Association told Reuters Health they were concerned that it will permit euthanasia in cases where a patient has an incurable disease but still has years to live.
"Doctors know that this law is simply flawed and find it totally unacceptable that individuals who are not terminally ill will also be eligible for euthanasia," said Marc Moens, vice-chairman of the Belgian medical chamber, ABSYM.
A survey conducted by the Artsen medical journal in Brussels last year showed that 75% of doctors opposed the new law, with 8 out of 10 claiming that they would be unwilling to carry out patients' requests for euthanasia.
Under the proposed legislation, any patient requesting euthanasia must be alert when he makes his demand and must repeat his request. For patients who are not in the terminal stages of illness, three medical opinions must be sought.
Every mercy killing must be reported to a federal commission that would regulate the practice and bring prosecutions where necessary. The commission will consist of 8 physicians, 4 lawyers, and 4 palliative care experts.
"This will be a typically bureaucratic and unworkable Belgian commission, because 50% have to be pro-life members and the other half pro-euthanasia, while to bring a prosecution the law requires a two thirds majority," said Herman Mys, professor of medical law at Leuven University.
"Even if the law were a success and doctors were persuaded to report their activities, then the commission would simply not have the manpower to deal with all the cases," Professor Mys said. If the estimated 1400 euthanasia requests each year in Belgium were all reported, it has been calculated that the commissioners would have to process more than four cases a day.
The Liberal Party (VLD), which is the driving force behind the bill, is adamant that the law will work and has been strongly supported by pro-euthanasia groups such as the Belgian ADMD.
The right-to-die debate was rekindled in Europe recently when British
motor neurone disease patient, Diane Pretty, died after losing a fight
in the British and European courts to end her life with her husband's help.
© 2002 Reuters Ltd