ECHR sides with Belgium on euthanasia but criticises review process

ECHR sides with Belgium on euthanasia but criticises review process
oncologist Wim Distelmans, who chairs the Federal Euthanasia Commission. Credit: Belga

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled 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.

The ECHR announced on Tuesday that, in three out of four counts, Belgium had complied with the law. However, it found fault in how Belgium conducted a review after the euthanasia was performed, unanimously agreeing there had been a violation of Article 2 (right to life) on account of the post-euthanasia review procedure.

Twenty years ago today Belgium passed its Euthanasia Act which decriminalises the procedure in certain situations.

The law specifies that the person must be in a “medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident."

Failure to protect the patient?

In this context, Belgian woman Godelieve De Troyer who had been suffering from chronic depression for about four decades consulted oncologist Wim Distelmans, who now chairs the Federal Euthanasia Commission. De Troyer sought to undergo the procedure in September 2011. Following several interviews, he agreed to become her doctor.

Her daughter and son, the case's applicant Tom Mortier, were not informed about the decision until she emailed them about the procedure in January 2012. Mortier did not respond to the email and was later informed by the hospital about his mother's passing. He consequently opened a case against the doctor.

The Federal Board for the Review and Assessment of Euthanasia concluded that the euthanasia had been carried out in accordance with the 2002 Euthanasia Act, resulting in Mortier taking the case to the court in Strasbourg, alleging that Belgium failed to protect his mother.

The ECHR decided to only investigate the complaints under Article 2, based on which Mortier stated that Belgium failed to fulfil its obligations to protect his mother’s life.

Criticising reviewing process

The court unanimously found that Article 2 had been violated during post-euthanasia review procedure. It stated that Belgium didn't properly analyse the case in either the mandatory review conducted by its commission for euthanasia or in a criminal investigation that followed.

ADF International, the conservative group representing Mortier during the court case, welcomed the decision, stating it sends a "clear warning about the dangers of euthanasia and the fiction of legal ‘safeguards’."

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"Unfortunately, while the Court indicated that more ‘safeguarding’ is necessary to protect life, its own ruling makes clear that laws and protocols were insufficient to protect the rights of Tom’s mother," Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International, said.

He lamented that the court dismissed the challenge to the Belgian legal framework, and criticised the lack of independence of the euthanasia commission, arguing that the fact that Distelmans was co-chair at the time demonstrated a clear conflict of interest.

"Despite Belgium euthanising an average of seven people per day, the Commission has only ever referred one case for further investigation."


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