Catholic Psychiatric Hospitals in Belgium to Permit Euthanasia for Patients With “Hopeless” Suffering

Tim Bradley  

A network of psychiatric hospitals operated by the Brothers of Charity in Belgium will now permit its patients to be euthanized, according to a statement from the board controlling the order’s medical institutions.


The Brothers of Charity is an international religious order in the Catholic Church, and bioethics news outlet Bioedge reports that the order is responsible for a large number—around 5,000—of beds for psychiatric patients in Belgium.


According to a translation provided by Bioedge, the statement from the board controlling the Brothers’ institutions explains, “We take seriously the unbearable and hopeless suffering and patients’ request for euthanasia. On the other hand, we do want to protect lives and ensure that euthanasia is performed only if there is no more possibility to provide a reasonable perspective to treat the patient.” But the international head of the religious order, Brother René Stockman, was taken aback by the board’s decision and reportedly told media, “We deplore this new vision.” In another interview, Brother Stockman told De Morgen, “We cannot accept that euthanasia is carried out within the walls of our institutions.” Stockman noted that he intends to appeal to the Vatican and to the Belgian bishops to intervene.


That psychiatric patients in Belgium and the Netherlands are sometimes euthanized is no surprise to those who follow the progression of assisted suicide and euthanasia in countries that have legalized the practices. That medical institutions operated under the auspices of a Catholic religious order will now participate in the euthanasia program is, nevertheless, jarring. One Catholic bioethicist from Brussels told Catholic News Service that political and financial—but also internal—pressures likely led to the board’s statement, which was drafted in March.


Richard Doerflinger, in a recent interview with Charlotte Lozier Institute, noted, “In the Netherlands, Belgium, and other countries with longer experience of this agenda [than the U.S.], the killing has moved steadily from assisted suicide to euthanasia; from terminally ill patients to those with chronic illness, mental illness, or simple weariness of life; and from voluntary to nonvoluntary euthanasia.” Belgium has been stumbling down this slippery slope for some time. But the news that Catholic institutions—often among the strongest opponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia—in the country will permit patients to be euthanized indicates that Belgium is nearing the bottom.



Wesley Smith notes in a CLI research paper that since Belgium legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in 2002, “the country has experienced a crescendo of increasingly radical medicalized killings and/or permissions to kill that demonstrate the logical consequences of accepting the premise that killing is an acceptable answer to suffering.” Smith offers examples of this increasing radicalization: joint euthanasia deaths of the elderly, euthanasia after sexual exploitation by a psychiatrist, euthanasia after a botched sex change surgery, euthanasia for mental illness, for children, and for organ harvesting.


In 2013, Belgium’s legislature voted to legalize euthanasia for terminally ill children (of any age), as well as for adults suffering from dementia. The first case of child euthanasia in Belgium was reported in October 2016, when a terminally ill 17-year-old boy was euthanized.


Permitting euthanasia for psychiatric patients (including children) is a decision especially ripe for abuse. These patients might benefit from treatments that seek to alleviate their suffering rather than end their suffering by ending their lives. Even if the chances of alleviating a patient’s suffering appear slight after medical and psychological assessments, for a Catholic institution to speak of “hopeless suffering” (emphasis added) on the part of its patients is a radical, and pastorally harmful, approach.


The risk of patients being euthanized without their consent is not imaginary: a 2015 New England Journal of Medicine study found that potentially more than 1,000 deaths in Belgium in 2013 were “hastened [by a doctor] without an explicit request from the patient.” These included cases “where a patient request was not judged as explicit by the physician, where the request came from the family or where the physician acted out of compassion.”


Now one of the country’s prominent psychiatric hospital networks—that had until now distanced itself from the euthanasia program—will begin to participate, placing more psychiatric patients at risk. Raf De Rycke, an economist and chairman of the board controlling the Brothers’ medical institutions, defended the shift in policy in a statement given to De Morgen. “We have not made a 180 degree turn. It is not that we used to be against euthanasia and now suddenly are for it. This is consistent with our existing criteria. We are making both possible routes for our patients: both a pro-life perspective and euthanasia.


“We start from the same basic values: the inviolability of life is an important foundation, but for us it is not absolute. This is where we are on a different wavelength from Rome,” De Rycke continued.


De Rycke’s justification for the decision to permit euthanasia in the Brothers’ psychiatric hospitals stretches far beyond the realm of the reasonable. Merriam-Webster defines “inviolable” as “secure from violation or profanation.” Synonyms offered include “sacred,” “sacrosanct,” “unassailable,” and “untouchable.” One cannot coherently profess loyalty to “the inviolability of life” while at the same time holding that the inviolability of life “is not absolute.”


Despite its rationalizations to the contrary, the decision of the Brothers’ board of directors to make euthanasia available to psychiatric patients represents a capitulation to the current orthodoxy of the culture of death at the expense of the order’s commitment to the inviolability of all human life.


Tim Bradley is a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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