The 14th of January, a euthanasia trial is started in Ghent, Belgium. Three physicians stand in court, to defend themselves for the accusation of ‘poisoning’.
In 2010, the 38-year-old Tine Nys received euthanasia based on “hopeless psychological suffering”. The young woman from Sint-Niklaas had a difficult youth with severe psychiatric problems, various suicide attempts and long periods of hospitalisation. After another broken relationship life became harder and harder for her. On Christmas Day 2009 she went to the doctor and talked about euthanasia for the first time. In the months that followed, two other doctors – including a psychiatrist – got involved in the case and finally agreed with euthanasia. This was performed four months later.
How has this case come to court?
The euthanasia was assessed by the Belgium ‘Federal commission for evaluation of euthanasia’ and was given approval. However, the family of Tine did not agree with this approval and stepped to court which opened an investigation and questioned all parties. In 2015, the Dendermonde attorney ruled that the doctors could not be blamed for anything. The family appealed the decision and the attorney general of Ghent reopened the matter. In November 2018, the Ghent Chamber of Indictment ruled that “there are sufficient indications that the conditions were not met” and the case was referred to the people’s jury of the Ghent court of Assisen.
What will this court do?
The court of assissen will re-evaluate whether the criteria of the law are met. According to the family, two criteria are not met:
1) “Tine was not incurable sick”, the sisters say. “When she first started talking about euthanasia on Christmas Eve 2009, she was more than 15 years free of psychiatric treatment. Two months before her death she also suddenly got a new diagnosis: autism.” They find it incomprehensible that other treatment options have never been suggested. According to the sisters, Tine was not “treated till the end”.
2) The sisters think the euthanasia was performed very amateurish. “The doctor compared it to a beloved pet that you give a little syringe”, pronounced the report of 2 February 2016. According to the sisters, the doctor acted very casually. “He didn’t even have the necessary equipment. The baxter with the deadly liquid was laid next to her at the seat. The plastic bag fell on her face while she was dying.” Further: “The doctor asked our father to hold the needle in her arm because he had forgotten to bring plasters. When she died, he asked our parents if they wanted to listen to the stethoscope in order to check that her heart had indeed stopped beating. Unbelievable.” According to the public prosecutor’s office, the doctor had not put his cell phone on hold and during the performance of the euthanasia he was called several times. When he left, he left the baxter with the deadly liquid just behind.
Who are the three doctors who stand to trial?
The first is the doctor who administered the euthanasia. It is not the first time that this doctor from Sint-Niklaas comes to court. He was sentenced in 2008 due to “being rebellious with a weapon”, in 2010 due to refusal of an alcohol test and in 2013 due to “accidental blows and injuries in traffic”. He also has two convictions for drunk driving. In 2015 he was on trial as lessor of a house in which a young couple had died after CO poisoning, but then was acquitted. In 2017, he was conditionally sentenced to two years in prison because he allegedly assaulted two young male patients with violence and threats. The other two doctors are Tine’s in-house doctor and a Ghent psychiatrist, who both approved the euthanasia. The three doctors are all on trial for “poisoning”. In theory they risk a lifetime imprisonment.
What to expect?
It is the very first time in Belgium that doctors have to answer to a court of law for the implementation of euthanasia. The process will undoubtedly be followed with much interest by the medical and political world. The impact of this process on doctors should not be underestimated.
According to lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge, who defends the doctor who performed the euthanasia, it will be “a political-religious process, in which the euthanasia law is put on the agenda”. The criminal lawyer wanted an impressive list of witnesses to come by, including philosophers, psychiatrists and psychologists, but also René Stockman, the Superior General of the Brothers of Charity who has close ties with the Vatican. According to Van Steenbrugge, Stockman put pressure on the public prosecutor’s office, which could explain why suddenly the decision came to prosecute the doctors. Advocate-General Francis Clarysse called this accusation to his address “ripped off”.
Court chairman Martin Minnaert already stated that he does not want a trial about euthanasia legislation in general. He wants to stay as close as possible to Tine Nys’ case. Therefore he decided that René Stockman should not testify. Who will still be allowed as witnesses include professor Wim Distelmans, the chair of the evaluation commission for euthanasia and professor Ariane Bazan, who launched an open letter in 2017 asking to tighten the euthanasia scheme for psychiatric suffering.
Either way, the discussion about euthanasia in psychological suffering will rekindle through this process.