Euthanasia in Belgium: The Most Recent Legal Developments and Policy Challenges
A lecture by Sigrid Sterckx, Professor of Ethics and Political and Social Philosophy, Ghent University, Belgium; End-of-Life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Ghent University, Belgium; Bioethics Institute Ghent, Ghent University, Belgium.
In 2002, euthanasia by a physician (the intentional termination of a patient’s life at his or her request) was depenalized in Belgium for adults and emancipated minors. In 2014, the law was extended to competent minors, without an age limit. The frequency of performance of euthanasia is rising very rapidly, having more than doubled in the last five years (accounting for one death in twenty, about 8 per day in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region). Moreover, although the prevalence of euthanasia remains highest in patients with cancer, a clear shift is visible in the characteristics of patients who request euthanasia and whose requests are granted. The largest increases are among women, and those aged 80 or older, with lower education levels, and those dying in nursing homes.
The patient must be "in a medical condition, without prospect of improvement, of constant and unbearable physical or psychological suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident." Euthanasia is becoming ever more common in cases of non-physical suffering. Moreover, epidemiological data and preliminary interview data suggest that euthanasia requests for "tiredness of life" are becoming an increasingly major issue.
This talk focused on two very recent legal developments: the ruling by the Belgian Constitutional Court on 29 October 2015 on appeals to annul the extension of the euthanasia law to children; and the very first referral of a euthanasia case to the Public Prosecutor on 27 October 2015 (a tiredness of life case). The second topic was discussed in the context of the establishment of a task force of the Belgian National Advisory Committee on Bioethics on the meaning of the concept "psychological suffering" in the law. Professor Sterckx serves as Rapporteur for this task force, which was set up at the request of the Secretary of State for Health due to concerns regarding the increasingly broad interpretation of the legal criteria for euthanasia.
Respondent: Lachlan Forrow, general internist and Director of Ethics and Palliative Care Programs, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; and President, The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship
Moderator: Holly Fernandez Lynch, Executive Director, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School
This event was free and open to the public.
Sponsored by the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, with support from the Oswald DeN. Camman Fund.