On October 4, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Belgium violated the right to life with the euthanasia of Mrs. Godelieva de Troyer in 2012. Although the ruling did not condemn Belgian euthanasia law as a whole, it did find that Belgium committed a right to life violation in de Troyer's case. This should force Belgium to reform its euthanasia regime, and creates a key opportunity to push back against the cult of state-sanctioned killing spreading throughout the Western world.
De Troyer was killed by lethal injection in 2012, at the age of 64. She was physically healthy, but suffered from severe depression. Doctors concluded that, since she had been diagnosed as “incurable,” she qualified for euthanasia under Belgian law. Her son, Tom Mortier, only learned of her death when the hospital called him and requested that he collect her belongings. Though Mortier was previously indifferent to the euthanasia debate, his mother’s euthanasia prompted him to appeal to Europe’s highest human rights court. I was honored to represent him, bringing two main arguments: 1) against Belgium’s euthanasia law and 2) against the law as applied in de Troyer’s case.
Ten years later, the Court has delivered its judgment. It did not find a problem with the Belgian euthanasia framework (and affirmed that euthanasia does not necessarily violate Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which concerns the right to life). However, it did find a violation of the right to life in how Belgium handled de Troyer's euthanasia. The Court found that in this instance, the convention was violated because the Belgian body established to regulate and review euthanasia cases—the Federal Commission for the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia—“lacked independence.”
The physician who administered de Troyer's injection—one of Belgium’s foremost euthanasia advocates—also leads the Federal Commission. Given this conflict of interest, the Court held unanimously that “there has been a violation of Article 2 of the Convention on account of the deficiencies in the post-mortem supervision of the euthanasia performed.”
According to the Court, governments have a positive procedural obligation to uphold the right to life, which involves conducting an investigation when someone loses her life in suspicious circumstances. Because de Troyer was euthanized on the basis of a “personality and mood disorder,” as stated in the judgment, and “no longer believed in recovery or treatment,” the circumstances of her death were intrinsically suspicious. The doctor in this case (and many others) apparently sat silently in the room while other commission members determined whether his conduct should be referred for investigation and, potentially, prosecution. Under his watchful eye, the commission unsurprisingly made no such referral. In fact, of the more than 20,000 cases the commission has reviewed, it has referred just one for further investigation.
Though the Court was right to repudiate the handling of de Troyer's case, it was illogical to not also condemn Belgium's euthanasia law as a whole. Instead, the Court held that Article 2’s right to life does not prohibit legal euthanasia so long as sufficient “safeguards” are ensured. Ironically, Belgium's “safeguards”—the Federal Commission and the concomitant possibility of prosecution—produced the violation in de Troyer's case. But because the Court maintained that states have a wide “margin of appreciation” to determine the “balance” between the right to life and death by choice, it found that Belgium’s legal framework did not violate the right to life.
Despite the incoherence of its ruling, the Court’s finding of a human rights violation reveals cracks in the elaborate façade of euthanasia “safeguards.” Euthanasia is safe. Euthanasia is rare. Euthanasia is painless. These are the lies upon which the euthanasia edifice rests. The Court's decision demonstrates that no “safeguards” can render euthanasia safe. What has happened in Belgium since euthanasia was legalized twenty years ago makes this clear.
Over the last two decades, close to 30,000 Belgians have been euthanized. Almost twenty percent of euthanasia deaths last year were individuals not expected to die soon naturally. Since 2014, it has been legal to euthanize children. Belgium has deemed a growing number of non-physical and non-severe conditions as qualifying for euthanasia. Furthermore, the compliance evaluation process remains inherently corrupt, given the self-selecting nature of the death machine: No physician truly committed to the Hippocratic Oath is willing to participate.
Advocates for life are right to ask: What happens now? Belgium has received a clear rebuke from the Court for its euthanasia abuses, but the legal framework remains unchallenged. If it is to respond seriously, the country must overhaul its review mechanisms—ousting the activist commission and bringing in dissenting voices. While far from sufficient, this might at least expose the immense corruption that permeates the system of state-sponsored death. The problem is that true dissenters are unlikely to sit on a commission established to approve—after the event—the intentional ending of life under subjective conditions.
There is a clear slippery slope from approving euthanasia in rare terminal cases to approving just about any mental health diagnoses. Twenty-three-year-old Shanti de Corte was recently euthanized due to the mental trauma she suffered from the 2016 Brussels airport terrorist attack, after which she “never felt safe.” Her death signals our society’s failure to support the vulnerable and wounded. We have abandoned authentic care and compassion in favor of death.
Now, a movement is growing in Canada to extend euthanasia to infants who suffer from “severe malformations.” Legal infanticide is the gruesome next step for a worldview that discards the imperfect and unwanted, and that considers death the best response we can offer to pain, suffering, or loneliness. Euthanasia ideology contains no limiting principle.
As attacks on life grow increasingly blatant, let us boldly reject this killing done in the name of medicine and compassion. The European Court of Human Rights has given us an opportunity to challenge the falsehoods that buttress the euthanasia agenda. It is incumbent on human rights defenders everywhere to drag the dark reality of this practice into the light.
Robert Clarke is barrister and deputy director of ADF International.
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Image by Alberto Biscalchin licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.