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Euthanasia: Pandemic had little effect on case numbers

© Hiroshi Tsubono/Unsplash

The number of cases of euthanasia in Belgium fell in 2020 to 2,444, according to the federal evaluation committee which oversees the practice.

The number is 212 fewer than the total for 2019, but still an increase of 100 or so on 2018. According to the committee, the coronavirus pandemic may have had some effect on the numbers, but nothing major.

We have heard here and there that some people wanted to postpone their euthanasia, until it would be possible again to see the whole family at the farewell,” suggested Professor Wim Distelmans (VUB), chair of the committee, which also publishes the annual numbers.

I am referring to older people who suffer from polypathology,” he said, referring to people who suffer from multiple disorders, physical or mental or both.

That group of people accounted for 421 cases of euthanasia last year, hardly different from the year before. The one difference: the numbers had been growing constantly in previous years, but not in 2020.

One thing did have an effect on the numbers, Prof. Distelmans said, and that was the trial of three doctors who had been involved in a case of euthanasia where the adherence to the legal procedure was contested by the patient’s family.

I suspect that the euthanasia trial that took place in January also had an impact,” he said. “Because I’ve heard doctors say they wouldn’t do it again, even in the case of an incurable cancer.”

All three doctors were acquitted at trial of malpractice, but the risk of having to stand trial is enough to put many doctors off taking part in what is a legal procedure in Belgium.

The majority of cases of euthanasia in 2020 – 66.6% – concerned people over the age of 70. Most commonly, in three out of four cases, the patient was suffering from cancer.

In the vast majority of cases – 87.3% – the patient was already considered to be a terminal case, but palliative case no longer offered any comfort.

The notion that Belgium, by making euthanasia legal according to strict procedures, has opened the door to ‘euthanasia on demand’ is simply not borne out by the figures.

Only 21 people, or fewer than one in 100, went through the process leading to euthanasia on the grounds of a serious and untreatable psychiatric illness, compared to 26 the year before.

In the case that ended last January, the patient complained of intolerable psychological suffering, which the law allows to be considered on the same terms as physical suffering. Such cases often make headlines around the world, but the figures show they are very much the exception rather than the rule.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times