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Lethal Jabs Study Fuels Belgian Euthanasia Debate

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – More than three in 100 deaths in Belgium’s northern Flemish region every year are the result of lethal injection without the patient’s request, according to a medical study published on Friday.

Euthanasia, where a patient explicitly asks to have his or her life ended, accounts for a further 1.3 percent of deaths in the region, according to a Belgian university study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet.

The study comes amid intense debate about euthanasia in Belgium, whose Dutch neighbors are set to make history next week by becoming the first country to legalize mercy killing.

Belgium is considering proposals from the ruling Socialist, Liberal and Green coalition to decriminalize certain forms of euthanasia, against fierce Christian Democrat opposition.

The Belgian study, conducted in 1998 and based on anonymous questionnaires sent to physicians, follows similar surveys in Australia in 1995 and in the Netherlands in 1990 and 1995.

Australia’s Northern Territory legalized medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in 1996, but the law was later repealed.

The Belgian study found that in almost 40 percent of deaths, a medical end-of-life decision was involved — either to shorten a patient’s life, alleviate pain with a potentially life-shortening treatment or by withholding treatment.

The frequency of deaths preceded by an end-of-life decision is similar in Belgium and the Netherlands, but lower than in Australia, which was 64.8 percent in 1995.

“However, in Flanders, the rate of administration of lethal drugs to patients without their explicit request is similar to Australia, and significantly higher than in the Netherlands,'” the study said.

In the Netherlands, the rate was 0.7 percent of all deaths in 1995, about four times less than that in northern Belgium. In Australia, some 3.5 percent of all deaths were the result of lethal injection without the patient’s explicit request.

“Perhaps less attention is given to the requirements of careful end-of-life practice in a society with a restrictive approach than in one with an open approach that tolerates and regulates euthanasia and PAS (Physician Assisted Suicide),” the study concluded, referring to the different approaches in Belgium and Australia, on the one hand, and the Netherlands on the other.

Dutch-speaking Flanders accounts for almost 60 percent of the Belgian population.

The lower house of the Dutch parliament is expected to approve a law to formally allow mercy killing next Tuesday.