Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ten years after euthanasia law, opposition still simmers in Belgium

By Taylor Pool

Against all odds, one 16-year-old Belgian teenager is still alive.

Tikvah's brain damage
Photo contributed by Lionel Roosemont
Tikvah Roosemont was born with about half a brain. Doctors predicted she would likely die before birth, during birth or shortly after. They advised her parents to abort her in the seventh month of gestation. Lionel Roosemont, a professional guide to battlefield sites from World War I, said he and his wife wanted to give his daughter a chance to live and refused to abort her. 

Though doctors predicted otherwise, today Tikvah is neither deaf, lame, blind nor dead.

On the 10-year anniversary of the law legalizing euthanasia, a process defined as causing the death of an adult by medical means at his or her own request, Roosemont is still speaking out against possible further additions to the law. 

He said there is talk that lawmakers could decide to legalize abortion until one day before birth, infanticide of handicapped babies or euthanasia of minors, with or without parental consent.  

Roosemont said few people dare speak out against these sensitive issues, but because his daughter has been subjected to media attention for 15 years, he continues to speak out in an effort to protect what he called “the sanctity of life.”

Roosemont said he and his wife still receive questions and accusations of committing an ethical blunder by not aborting Tikvah. It is incidents like these that form the basis of Roosemont’s motivation to speak out against euthanasia and other end-of-life decisions. 

“We have to testify about our lives and about what is happening in Belgium as it is getting worse and worse today,” he said.

Under the law, however, a patient is not granted his or her request for euthanasia until the physical or psychological suffering cannot be alleviated, the patient makes repeated requests, the treating physician receives a concurrent opinion from one or more consulting physicians depending on the case, the case is heard by a review board and the patient is given options other than euthanasia to consider.

Majority of the population approves of the law

According to Dr. Kenneth Chambaere, a sociologist and researcher of end-of-life decisions in Belgium, 80 percent of the Belgian population does not agree with Roosemont and his anti-euthanasia beliefs. 

Activists for the euthanasia law such as Jacqueline Herremans, president of the French organization called the Association for the Right to Die in Dignity, say whether one chooses euthanasia or not, having the choice to request or perform euthanasia is what matters.

Herremans was speaking about herself when she said, “There is only one person who is able to decide for me.”

To present an argument not commonly explored, Roosemont said euthanasia should not be legal because it is fundamentally against the beliefs of each of the political parties in Belgium. He says the Christian Democrats should be against it for religious reasons, the Liberal Democrats because misuse of the law has allowed many people to be killed without their consent (a fact Roosemont said was confirmed in the health journal The Lancet) and Social Democrats because euthanasia victimizes the “weakest members of society” and kills them at their weakest times, a victimization Social Democrats claim to fight against.

In a 2007 study concerning end-of-life decisions in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, Chambaere researched the causes of all deaths in Flanders hospitals. According to the study, 2 percent of all deaths in hospitals were by euthanasia and 1.8 percent of all deaths in hospitals were without the patient’s consent, an illegal procedure that is usually performed by injecting a patient with increasingly larger doses of morphine until they die. 

This procedure is called Life Abbreviation Without Request. Chambaere said in the latter cases, the physicians always have the specific intention to hasten the patient’s death. According to the study, these patients were often not involved in the decision because they were in a coma or had dementia, but the family and other caregivers were usually consulted and involved.

Roosemont described the phenomenon of purposeful deaths in hospitals, both legal and illegal, as a “slippery slope.”

“Once you touch the sanctity of life, and I use sanctity in a non-religious way, you touch the sanctity of humanity,” he said.

Dr. Philippe Mahoux, the head of the Socialist Party in the Senate and one of the fathers of the euthanasia law in Belgium, said the parliament began debates about euthanasia in 2000 and eventually passed the law because there was a demand for it.

The  three most common reasons for euthanasia requests are when a patient is suffering without prospect of improvement, when he or she is feeling a loss of dignity or experiencing pain, according to a study by Dr. Yanna Van Wesemael, a psychologist and researcher of euthanasia requests. 

According to Wesmael’s 2011 study on the outcomes of euthanasia requests, since 2002, only 48 percent of requests have been carried out because some requests are withdrawn, some patients die before administration and some requests are refused.

In Chambaere’s 2007 study, about 2 percent of all deaths in Flanders are caused by euthanasia which amounts to just over 1,000 people a year in that region. Roosemont says he sees signs that the atmosphere in Belgium, since and even before the creation of the euthanasia law, is also becoming present in other parts of the world like the United States. He expresses his concern that a similar law could be introduced in the U.S. if Americans, like Belgians, continue to reject any constraint to their freedom, the freedom to choose when to die included.

The Roosemont family
Photo contributed by Lionel Roosemont
Roosemont said it is heart-wrenching to him to see so many people being euthanized each year.

“I love my country,” he said. “It breaks my heart to have to be so open about what is happening at the moment in Belgium.”

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