January 11, 2016

Belgian archbishop seeks euthanasia opt-out for Catholic hospitals

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Archbishop Jozef De Kesel speaks as he is named archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, during a Mass in Mechelen on Dec. 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eric Vidal
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BELGIUM-EUTHANASIA, originally transmitted on Jan. 7, 2016.

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel speaks as he is named archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, during a Mass in Mechelen on Dec. 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eric Vidal *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BELGIUM-EUTHANASIA, originally transmitted on Jan. 7, 2016.

(RNS) Belgium is embroiled in a religious freedom controversy after the new head of the country’s Roman Catholic Church demanded that faith-run hospitals and nursing homes have the right to refuse euthanasia to patients.

A 2002 law decriminalized euthanasia for terminally ill adults and it has the support of a large majority of public opinion and politicians. But opposition in this historically Catholic country has grown as lawmakers extended the practice to including terminally ill children and people with severe psychological problems.

At the end of a long interview with the daily Het Belang van Limburg the day after Christmas, the new primate of Belgium, Jozef De Kesel, acknowledged that many secular-minded Belgians had no problem with abortion or euthanasia.

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel speaks as he is named Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, during a mass in Mechelen, on December 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eric Vidal *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BELGIUM-EUTHANASIA, originally transmitted on Jan. 7, 2016.

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel speaks as he is named archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, during a Mass in Mechelen on Dec. 12, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eric Vidal
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BELGIUM-EUTHANASIA, originally transmitted on Jan. 7, 2016.

“But it is not obvious from my faith,” said De Kesel, who is the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. “I think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals.”

The statement surprised many because De Kesel’s reputation as a moderate made him a popular choice when the pope appointed him to succeed his arch-conservative predecessor Andre-Joseph Leonard last month.

“We were happy when he arrived, he seemed like an open man and I had great hopes for him,” said Jacqueline Herremans, head of the Association for the Right to Die with Dignity. “I didn’t expect comments like this.”

Several politicians and right-to-die advocates promptly came out against the idea, saying religious heath care centers could not opt out of providing a legal medical service because they are financed by taxpayers through state subsidies they receive.

Senate President Christine Defraigne, from the liberal Reformist Movement party, said the euthanasia law was clear. “Freedom of conscience does not apply to hospitals,” she said.

Defending the Catholic position, lawyer Fernand Keuleneer — a former member of the federal euthanasia commission that reviews death requests — said the law foresaw a conscience clause for doctors but did not mention institutions. “The law does not create … a fundamental right to euthanasia,” he argued.

The 2002 decriminalization law was originally only for terminally ill patients with diseases like cancer. Religious leaders and some conservative politicians have long opposed euthanasia, but public acceptance has grown over the years — especially in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern region with about 60 percent of the population — and voluntary deaths have risen steadily.

From 235 deaths in 2003, the total climbed to 953 by 2010 and then jumped to 1,432 in 2012 and 1,924 in 2014. About 80 percent of the cases are in Flanders, where people may be influenced by the neighboring Netherlands, which also passed a law in 2002 after turning an official blind eye to the practice since the 1970s.

As public acceptance grew in Belgium, the criteria for accepting requests for euthanasia were loosened to the point that unusual cases began to appear in the news.

In 2013, identical 45-year-old twin brothers, deaf since birth, got lethal injections after they began to go blind and told doctors they could not bear not seeing each other. That same year, a 44-year-old man born female was euthanized because he suffered “unbearable psychological suffering” after several botched sex-change operations.

A serial murderer and rapist was granted permission for medically assisted suicide in 2014 due to the mental anguish he suffered since he had no prospect of release because he could not overcome his violent sexual impulses.

This decision was reversed a week before he was to die, possibly because about 15 other convicts also applied for euthanasia after his request was granted.

While cases like these stiffened the resolve of euthanasia opponents, public acceptance was so widespread that newspapers expressed surprise at the negative comments made abroad when the Parliament voted in 2014 to allow terminally ill children to opt — with parental consent — to die.

“I’m annoyed at hearing ‘you kill children’ in the foreign media. We don’t use that kind of language anymore. It’s a very different debate on a different level,” said Bart Sturtewagen, editor-in-chief of the center-right newspaper De Standaard. The left-wing daily De Morgen said Belgians should be proud to be “ethically progressive leaders.”

Public opinion and politicians agreed. An opinion poll in 2013 before the vote on allowing euthanasia for children showed that 74 percent of those surveyed supported the reform. When it came to the legislative vote, large majorities backed it in both houses of Parliament.

With such widespread support for euthanasia, and the once-powerful Catholic Church reduced to an average 5 percent attendance at Sunday Mass, De Kesel’s comments could seem to be background noise that politicians could ignore.

But the church still plays an important role in Belgium’s mixed private and public health care system. Private Catholic institutions provide about three-quarters of the hospital beds in Flanders and 42 percent in French-speaking south Belgium, or Wallonia. They also run roughly a third of the nursing homes in the country.

The Catholic hospitals, which receive state subsidies, officially offer only palliative care for end-of-life patients, but not all of them have an outright ban on euthanasia in their guidelines.

The debate over De Kesel’s comments has brought to light that, in the first such case, a Catholic nursing home outside Brussels has been sued for refusing to euthanize a 74-year-old patient.

A court is due to rule on the case in April.

(Tom Heneghan writes about religion from Paris)

  • Larry

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Catholic hospitals ran on the idea of providing medically necessary services with the informed consent of patients?

    If dogma is getting in the way of providing care for a patient, it has no place in a medical facility. Theologians have no place in the decision process of medical professionals in how to treat patients.

    Too often the Catholic Church seeks to impose its will on unwilling and consenting patients in service of their religious doctrines. Hospital care is seldom something patients have a lot of choice in (except for voluntary surgical procedures). So the idea that patients have the option of going to other hospitals is not credible.

    Btw, these are not charity run organizations, but facilities the church has invested time and resources into for the purposes of turning a profit. Many hospitals fall under Catholic control because they are acquired/purchased.

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  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    The patron saint of science (or medicine) without moral guidance or input is Dr. Mengele. The history of German medicine of the 1930’s is historical proof that there is such a thing as a slippery slope that can take us in directions we never thought possible because our intentions are supposedly so worthuy. But once –as the German doctors put it– “life unworthy of life” becomes our guiding moral principle –we are rapidly descending the slope.

  • Larry

    Way to Godwin!

    Catholic Church interventions into medical decisions have nothing to do with morality and everything to do with adherence to arbitrary dictum from higher ups. Religious morality is all about outsourcing decisions to others, avoiding personal responsibility for a given view and excusing actions by proof texting ones scripture. Naturally the church believes it knows better about people than they do themselves. Typical nonsense. Egotistical autocrats interposing themselves into personal decisions they have no business being involved in.

    Slippery slope, aka the reductio ad absurdum fallacy is all about avoiding an issue in its own facts to promote unreasonable hysteria.

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  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    Modern Americans are just as ostrich-like on some issues as “good” Germans were in the 1930’s. I have yet to see a good argument that proves “It Can’t Happen Here” at the hands of “good” Americans. Already in parts of Europe an elderly person’s life is as expendable as a child’s life in the womb
    We are not just individuals with rights. We are also living in a community that can morally rot putting every human life at risk.
    I don’t know if the display “The Nazi Doctors” I saw is still at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. But it is a good teaching display for all who have ears to hear and eyes to see,

  • Larry

    “I have yet to see a good argument that proves “It Can’t Happen Here” at the hands of “good” Americans.”

    The best defense to descent into dictatorship is we don’t let our elected leaders vote away the civil liberties of those in the political minority. We temper their actions through judicial review. Those “judicial activists” conservatives bemoan when discriminatory laws are shot down are what keep our legislators honest.

    All those f00ls who recently thought our Supreme Court was allegedly overstepping its authority in striking down a law which had no rational or secular purpose are the ones who would gladly vote away the freedoms of others (and themselves). The ones who think majority rule allows them to treat any other group like garbage. The ones who think freedom entitles them to attack the rights of others.

    Btw enough with the Godwin bu11. Informed consent is a major element of “right to die” legislation precisely to avoid Nazi-type situations.

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    Don’t be so Pollyanish. When some children see grannies estate being drained to pay medical bills they will be very quick to shove a pen and document in her face and coerce her to sign that she wants some hemlock now please.

    Activists that are promoting getting rid of expensive or troublesome people are just plain evil or supremely blind

  • Your ignorance of the laws in question are duly noted. So you are criticizing what you think the laws are about and not what they actually are. Your posts have been a giant waste of time.

    That being said, its no business of churches to be interjecting themselves into the informed consented medical decisions of patients. As usual Churches act as if people have no free will and that all people must defer to their arbitrary decisions,

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