Key euthanasia case starts in Leuven

Summary

A panel of judges in Leuven will begin hearing arguments today on the case of an elderly woman who was refused euthanasia in a Catholic rest home, a case that could see changes to Belgium’s right-to-die laws

Game changer

A court in Leuven will begin hearing a civil case today regarding euthanasia that could lead to a change in the law. The case concerns a 74-year-old woman with terminal cancer, who was refused euthanasia in 2011 by a Catholic rest home in Diest, Flemish Brabant.

The woman fulfilled all of the legal conditions required for euthanasia to be administered, but such refusals are common in Belgium when the law clashes with the religious principles of the care provider.

Usually the situation is resolved by a doctor transferring the patient to a family home or to another medical institution, where euthanasia can be carried out. In this case, however, the family of Mariette Buntjens from Laakdal in Antwerp province decided to go to court, alleging unnecessary pain and suffering caused by the rest home.

The outcome of the case could lead to a change in the euthanasia law, according to Wim Distelmans, professor of palliative care at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and a great defender of Belgium’s right-to-die legislation. The law already allows a doctor to refuse to carry out euthanasia for reasons of conscience, he explained, but is not clear if an institution can do the same.

The family’s lawyer, Sylvie Tack, a specialist in medical law, will argue that it cannot. The case will be heard by three judges, which is seen as a reflection of how important the judgement will be.

Photo: Ingimage