October 9, 2002
Andrew Osborn in Brussels
Less than a month after mercy killing was legalised in Belgium, a bitter row has flared up over the first official case, with the country's professional medical organisation saying that despite the new legislation the patient was not legally entitled to die.
The Belgian government was yesterday under pressure to launch an investigation into the case of Mario Verstraete, 39, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and who died by lethal injection on September 30, exactly a week after a law legalising euthanasia came into force.
Belgium was the second country to take such a step, after the Netherlands, and the Verstraete case has been seized upon by sceptics who believe that the new law is far too lax.
Mr Verstraete managed his death with precision, ensuring that a frank documentary about the occasion was broadcast on the chosen day. However, critics complain that he broke the law on two counts and have called for the doctor who helped him die to be prosecuted, and for an investigation to be launched.
Under the law, at least one month must elapse between a written request to die and the mercy killing itself, the idea being to give the patient a chance to change his or her mind. But Mr Verstraete was dead within seven days of the law taking force.
The fact that he was not in the final stages of a terminal illness (although suffering considerably) has also angered sceptics.
The new law does make provision for patients who are not in the final phases of a terminal illness, but their doctor must get a second opinion, and it is unclear whether Mr Verstraete's doctor complied with that requirement.
Conservative papers in Belgium have vented their collective rage at what many called an illegal publicity stunt. Many published interviews with people in the advanced stages of MS who said that the idea of euthanasia had not even occurred to them.
Belgium's Order of Medical Doctors, the country's professional medical body, has said that it is considering taking action over the case.
A government body set up to police the new law is likely to look into the circumstances of Mr Verstraete's death.
The government said yesterday that no investigation had yet been launched, but the commission was in any case legally obliged to draw up a report into the working of the law.
The daily Het Belang Van Limburg was one of the papers that criticised the manner of Mr Verstraete's death. "VTM (a Flemish broadcaster) had very nearly connected live to Verstraete's deathbed," it said.
"We cannot rid ourselves of the impression that the freethinkers, with Verstraete as a convinced supporter, greeted - we might even dare say celebrated - the euthanasia act with the death of Mario Verstraete. The celebration has left an awful aftertaste."
Mr Verstraete had argued that euthanasia was humane and right.
"I love life," he said. "But when it's finished I want to be able to say that it's finished and leave. Yes, life is a gift from God. But if it is a gift which is no longer worth having you can give it back."
Under the law, patients must be at least 18 years old and have made specific, voluntary and repeated requests that their lives be ended.
Surveys have suggested that three-quarters of the Belgian population support the legalisation of mercy killing.
A global controversy
The Netherlands Euthanasia has been controversial for the past two decades. It was informally tolerated but remained illegal until April this year. In 1998 a doctor was convicted of illegally assisting a Dutch politician to take his own life. The court took the pending law into account, ruled he had acted compassionately, and spared him a custodial sentence
Australia Euthanasia is illegal, but a doctor, Philip Nitschke, says he plans to buy a Dutch-registered ship and carry out mercy killings on board. The Dutch government has not given its blessing
Switzerland Euthanasia is illegal but tolerated in some cantons. Concerns that the regime may be too liberal were compounded by the case of a Swiss nurse who confessed to killing 27 patients
Britain Euthanasia carries a mandatory life jail sentence. The BMA has always opposed euthanasia, but a minority of doctors would like the law changed
© Copyright 2002 Guardian Newspapers Limited