Pain treatments are not euthanasia, says court

Summary

An Ostend doctor accused of murdering five patients by administering illegal euthanasia has been acquitted by a court in Bruges. The doctor, who has not been named, was reported in 2005 by the St Monica nonprofit organisation, which runs two care homes for the elderly in Ostend. According to the complaint, the doctor had administered fatal doses of morphine to five elderly and senile patients between 2000 and 2005.

An Ostend doctor is acquitted of murder

An Ostend doctor accused of murdering five patients by administering illegal euthanasia has been acquitted by a court in Bruges. The doctor, who has not been named, was reported in 2005 by the St Monica nonprofit organisation, which runs two care homes for the elderly in Ostend. According to the complaint, the doctor had administered fatal doses of morphine to five elderly and senile patients between 2000 and 2005.

The doctor argued that the doses of morphine were too low to cause death and had been intended only to alleviate pain. The deaths, though they followed shortly after the treatments, were a result of the patients’ conditions and not the pain medication, the defence said.

In Belgium, euthanasia is legal provided the subject has a serious or incurable condition which leads to intolerable physical or psychological suffering. Most importantly, the patient needs to express the clear desire to bring an end to his or her life. In the case of patients suffering from dementia, that condition is impossible to fulfil.

The families of the patients supported the doctor and argued that their relatives were approaching death in any case, and that the doctor was doing a minimum necessary to prevent further suffering, even if the effect of pain control might be to shorten the time before death.

The case is being seen as an important precedent and a sign that doctors may continue to use pain control on terminal patients even if the treatments may shorten the lives of the patients. According to some estimates, one in four deaths in Flanders is accompanied by pain treatment that can shorten life. Wim Distelmans, professor of palliative care at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and chair of the federal euthanasia commission, called for the government to provide a clear legal framework for terminal care, such as now exists for euthanasia proper, including a commission which could act “as a buffer between the doctor and the prosecutor”.

Pain treatments are not euthanasia, says court

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