Jury chosen for first euthanasia criminal trial in Belgium

Summary

Three doctors are accused of poisoning in a case that could have far-reaching implications in diagnosing mental illness under Belgium’s euthanasia law

Procedures not followed, says family

The process of choosing the jury began yesterday in a court case that should prove to dominate headlines for weeks to come and could have repercussions on medical decisions regarding euthanasia. The case involves a family that has accused three doctors of violating euthanasia laws when they carried out the practice on a patient in 2010.

Tine Nys of Sint-Niklaas was 38 when she died from euthanasia with the approval of two physicians and a psychiatrist. She had suffered from severe psychological problems in her youth, had attempted suicide more than once and had undergone long-term stays in institutions.

Her family has argued that Tine had not been institutionalised for 15 years and consulted a doctor about euthanasia after a difficult break-up with her partner. Tine did this at the end of 2009 and, following consultations with a second physician – as required by the law – and with a psychiatrist, she was approved to undergo the procedure. During this period, she was also diagnosed with autism.

‘Sufficient evidence’

The euthanasia was carried out four months after Tine’s first consultation. Six months later, her family filed a complaint against the three doctors, who they say did not follow the regulations pertaining to euthanasia and, therefore, performed it illegally.

A court in Dendermonde found that there was not enough evidence to support a trial, but the family appealed. The appeals court in Ghent found that “there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that proper procedures were not followed” and scheduled the doctors for trial.

They are officially accused of poisoning, which could theoretically lead to a life sentence. It is the first time a criminal court has filed such charges against doctors who carried out euthanasia since Belgium passed the law allowing it in 2002.

To receive euthanasia on the basis of psychological suffering, you have to show that you have an incurable mental illness. That was not the case with Tine

- Sophie Nys

Four years ago, Tine’s sisters, Sophie and Lotte Nys, spoke to the press, explaining their motivation for taking the case to court. “She did absolutely have a difficult time when she was young, with a lot of ups and downs,” Lotte Nys told VRT at the time. “But she had outgrown it,” added Sophie.

“She had a job where she felt appreciated,” said Sophie, but a difficult break-up with her partner “led to all of those old feelings resurfacing. It was a rejection. And a few months later, she went to her GP to ask for euthanasia.”

Tine was not at the time under any treatment programme for depression or any other psychological problems and had not been hospitalised since her early 20s. “To receive euthanasia on the basis of psychological suffering, you have to show that you have an incurable mental illness. And that was not the case with Tine,” said Sophie. “Two months before euthanasia was carried out, she had a new diagnosis of autism. We never had the chance to consider Tine in this new light, to approach her and to understand her.”

Not against euthanasia

The sisters, who say they are not against euthanasia in general, claim that Tine never received any guidance on living with autism before the euthanasia was carried out. They also recorded conversations they had with Tine’s doctor and the psychiatrist, in which both admitted they had doubts about approving the procedure. One said that Tine had “shopped around” for her second doctor, who in the end carried out the procedure.

Further complicating the case is the behaviour of that doctor – not Tine’s regular doctor. The sisters, who were present for the administration of the euthanasia, said that he did not have the correct supplies with him and had to ask for help from the family to carry it out.

He also, said Sophie, compared the situation to “a pet who has to be put down, who also has to receive an injection. He was simply inhuman.”

Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2002, the second country in the world to do so after the Netherlands

That particular doctor is not unknown to the court: He already has convictions for threatening people with a weapon, refusing an alcohol test and reckless endangerment in traffic. In addition, he has two drunk-driving convictions and was also taken to court for owning a property in which a young couple died of CO2 poisoning.

The current case involves Flanders’ best-known lawyers, including Walter Van Steenbrugge and Christine Mussche, who are representing the doctor who carried out the euthanasia, and Jef Vermassen, who is defending the psychiatrist.

Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2002, the second country in the world to do so after the Netherlands. Both physical and psychological suffering can be considered in approving the procedure.

Photo: Lotte (left) and Sophie Nys insist procedures required by Belgium's euthanasia law were not followed in the case of their sister
(c)Courtesy VRT