Fewer people underwent euthanasia during pandemic

Fewer people underwent euthanasia during pandemic
The funeral service for paralympic athlete Marieke Vervoort who chose the end her life through euthanasia. Credit: Belga/ Yorick Jansens

The number of people that underwent euthanasia decreased slightly during the pandemic but by 2021 had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In 2020, the Federal Monitoring and Evaluation Commission on Euthanasia received 2,245 registrations of euthanasia. By last year, this figure increased by 10% to 2,700 – in line with 2019 figures when 2,656 people underwent euthanasia.

The numbers were released on Thursday in the biennial report of the Commission, tasked with checking whether the euthanasia cases declared by doctors meet the standards set out in Belgium’s euthanasia law, introduced in 2002.

The law details a number of conditions that must be met, including that the patient must consciously wish to undergo euthanasia, be in a so-called "medically hopeless condition", "suffer unbearably due to a serious and incurable illness" and formulate a "reasoned and repeated request".

Most patients that underwent euthanasia were older: 67% were over 70 years old, while 39% were over 80. Just 1.2% were under 40, excluding minors. In more than half of cases, the practice was carried out in a person's home. The rest were performed in hospitals and palliative units (30.4%) and residential care centres (13.4%).

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In 85% of cases, the patient was terminally ill and death was expected by the doctor in the foreseeable future. In the cases where a person was not terminally ill, patients were suffering from several diseases at once (polypathology).

In both years, cancer was the main reason why patients received help to end their life (63%), with chronic and incurable diseases being the second most common reason.

Lifting anonymity

Belgium's euthanasia law made headlines recently following the decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Belgium violated an article regarding the right to life in the 2012 euthanasia of a 64-year-old woman, who suffered from chronic depression.

Some members of the Commission wondered whether it was still necessary to maintain the anonymity rule, as the problem identified by the Court can only be remedied by removing anonymity.

In its latest report, the Commission is urgently pushing for this change to be made to the registration document in the euthanasia law following this ruling. But for that to happen, the 2002 euthanasia law needs to be amended.

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