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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyEuthanasia in Belgium

This week’s front-page story about Belgium Catholic psychiatric hospitals allowing doctors to euthanasize “non-terminal” mentally ill patients will raise alarm bells across Canada. History warns us that developments in Europe eventually find their way to Canada.

The Brothers of Charity Group stated in a nine-page document that it would allow doctors to perform euthanasia in any of its 15 centres which care for more than 5,000 patients a year. There are carefully stipulated criteria.

The decision was made by a board made up mainly of lay members. Brother Rene Stockman, superior general of the Brothers of Charity, explained that “only a few brothers are still involved in the government of the organization, so the majority are lay people.” He said the board faced a lot of political and financial pressure. But, he added, “Pressure doesn’t mean that we have to capitulate.”

Stockman has opposed the decision. He took three steps. 1) He informed his congregation of Brothers that the religious congregation did not accept this decision because it went against their charism of charity. 2) He informed the Belgian bishops conference and the papal nuncio. 3) He informed the Vatican. Secretariat of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is investigating the situation personally.

The group’s new policy document, drafted in March, comes about a year after a court fined the St. Augustine Catholic rest home in Diest, Belgium, for refusing to allow the euthanasia of a lung cancer patient on its premises.

The home was ordered to pay 6,000 euros after it prevented doctors from giving a lethal injection to Mariette Buntjens, 74, who instead was taken by ambulance to her private address to die “in peaceful surroundings.”

Carine Brochier, a Catholic bioethicist from Brussels, said the pro-euthanasia movement “is really happy about what is happening.” She believes internal as well as external pressures influenced the recent decision.

“The Brothers of Charity work with laypeople,” she said. “Those people think that euthanasia should be allowed in the premises.”

The new policy harmonizes the practice of the hospitals with Belgian law on euthanasia. It seeks to balance Catholic belief in the inviolability of innocent human life with duty of care under the law and with the demands of patient autonomy.

The policy promises to take requests for death seriously and it argues that “a carefully guided euthanasia can prevent more violent forms of suicide.” The policy acknowledges the difficulties in providing euthanasia to psychiatric patients because Belgian euthanasia law was “primarily written for physical suffering in a terminal situation.”

The suffering of psychiatric patients must be considered hopeless, unbearable and untreatable if a request for euthanasia was to be granted, the policy says. It adds that requests must be voluntarily and repeatedly made by a competent adult.

After three doctors assent to the patient’s request, the euthanasia can go ahead on the Brothers of Charity premises, the document concludes.

Raf De Rycke, chair of the board, said April 25 that the group was guided by three fundamental values in producing the policy: respect for the patient’s life, the autonomy of the patient and the relationship between the care provider and the patient.

Belgium joins two other European countries that allow assisted suicide for people with psychiatric problems. Canada is debating similar measures.

Commentators note that dozens of psychiatric patients have already been euthanized in Belgium. Now it will be easier for people suffering from schizophrenia, personality disorders, depression, autism or loneliness to access it.

There are few institutions in Belgium where euthanasia is not offered as an option.

The Brothers of Charity wonder if they can continue to sponsor their ministry to the mentally vulnerable. It’s a development Canadians will have to monitor closely.