January 31, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The first-ever trial for unlawful euthanasia to be held in Belgium since so-called “mercy killing” was legalized in the country concluded with the acquittal of the three accused doctors.
A 12-strong popular jury handed in the verdict of “not guilty” at 1 a.m. local time in Ghent on Friday for the three tried for the death by poisoning of Tine Nys, 38, who received a fatal injection in April 2010 after complaining of “incurable” psychiatric problems while being otherwise in good health.
The three doctors played different roles in an affair that reached the courts because of complaints on the part of the euthanasia victim’s two younger sisters, who were shocked to see the nonchalance with which her request had been honored. The appraisal of three doctors is necessary for euthanasia in Belgium for psychiatric reasons, which is why they were all considered as potentially co-responsible for possible neglect of the law.
Euthanasia is not a patient's right in Belgium. (Supposedly) strict conditions must be met and the final decision lies with the physician who is asked to administer the lethal shot. Once the patient is dead, the procedure is reported to a commission, which then assesses whether the killing went according to the law. In Nys’ case, a panel of the euthanasia commission, which includes euthanasia activist Wim Distelmans as co-president, issued a favorable decision.
However, the public prosecutor responsible for Sint-Niklaas, where Tine and her family lived, remained suspicious and decided to open an inquiry that culminated almost 10 years later with the Assizes held in Ghent over the last week.
Had the young woman received all possible treatments and care for her psychiatric illness? Was the euthanasia performed precipitously? Why was it performed in a slipshod manner, with the executing doctor forgetting to bring tape to fix the intravenous needle, dropping the bag of drip onto her head and then asking her father to use his stethoscope to check whether her heart had actually stopped beating?
Despite the fact that Tine’s family made clear that they were not in principle opposed to euthanasia, the trial was touted in the media and by the three doctors’ legal counsel as an attempt to discredit euthanasia itself and to frighten Belgian doctors out of performing legal “mercy killings.” Many Flemish media sources published articles saying that if the accused were found guilty, it would be more or less the end of euthanasia in Belgium.
This could have had an impact on the popular jury in a country where public opinion has been worked on for several decades in order to make euthanasia generally acceptable. There is at present little resistance in Belgium to the “medical” killing of patients in severe pain or distress at the end of their lives, and even euthanasia for psychiatric reasons seems to have become mainstream.
Distelmans, for one, commented on the acquittal, saying he did not think it was enough. He believes the law needs to be changed so that precise sanctions can be fixed for the non-respect of its conditions, which can range from major requirements to “the smallest detail” without the doctor knowing what penalty he incurs.
Distelmans added that he hopes the law will be modified expressly to allow the euthanasia of demented patients and those who are no longer able to express their will. “Some call that an extension of the law; I call it an improvement because many people are asking for this,” he told De Standaard.
The cases of the three doctors involved in the killing of Nys were treated differently by the Court of Assizes of Ghent. In a short arrest, all were acquitted but on different grounds.
Lieve Thienpont was the psychiatrist who was consulted as to the advisability of Nys receiving euthanasia. She confirmed that the young woman was suffering unbearably because of her psychological problems.
Her counsel, Evelien Delbeke, underscored that she could not be considered an accomplice to the act because giving an opinion on a euthanasia request cannot be considered as a crime under penal law. “It is an opinion that is not binding,” she insisted. She also told the court that her client had not had a special relationship with Tine, whose formal euthanasia request was made only four months before being killed.
Both her family and the public prosecution made the case that Thienpont pushed the woman toward euthanasia. According to her two younger sisters, Tine had actually received no real psychiatric treatment for 15 years, marked by depression, heroin addiction, prostitution, and repeated suicide attempts.
Nys underwent psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy for “borderline” disorder for many years. Just a few months before her death, she was diagnosed with autism, but Thienpont at that point stated that she did not think that specific therapy for Tine’s real condition would help.
Nor was it taken into account that the young woman had just had a breakup with her boyfriend and that she had periods of good spirits. In particular, on the day of her death, she invited a male friend to come and have lunch and wine with her and they chatted pleasantly all afternoon before it was time to say goodbye because her family and the doctor were coming.
Thienpont was deemed not guilty of being complicit to the crime of poisoning because, according to the jury, “she had committed no fault or misconduct.”
The verdict points to the fact that under Belgian law there is no specific incrimination for giving inappropriate advice from a consulting position in the euthanasia case. In written law systems such as in France or Belgium, penal sanctions are only possible when a positive law, restrictively interpreted, has been infringed.
The second doctor who was acquitted was Nys’ family doctor, Frank De Geest, who wrote a note saying his patient suffered from a severe psychiatric disorder (Asperger’s syndrome) which was “unbearable” for her. As the affair developed, it became clear that he had not known that his note was used in order to allow the effective performing of the euthanasia, and both the woman's family and the public prosecutor argued in favor of his acquittal.
It appeared that he thought he was writing to the euthanasia commission for a prior assessment of the case and he made it clear that while he supported his patient’s request did not agree with it. He would have tried to prevent her from obtaining euthanasia, it appeared, and did not know he would not get a chance to speak to her before anything irreversible took place.
The use of his note, dated 27 April 2010, at the request of the executing physician, appears to have been a fraudulent one, all the more shocking because Tine was euthanized that evening, and that it has not been proved that he was aware that that was going to happen.
The logic of these two acquittals would be to incriminate the executing doctor. Thienpont was deemed not guilty because she could not be considered as an accomplice to the poisoning that effectively took place through the administration of a lethal substance. And De Geest was acquitted because of the faulty use of a short note that was used as a justification for the euthanasia itself.
The main accused, Dr. Joris Van Hove, was nevertheless judged not guilty. According to the Belgian press, the jury stayed away for eight hours, no less, because of uncertainty regarding the executing doctor’s responsibility. Even so, their verdict was cautious. Having recalled that the euthanasia law requires doctors to check prior to the act that all the conditions of the law are fulfilled, the Court of Assizes’ arrest decided that there was “reasonable doubt” regarding Van Hove’s compliance with these requirements.
“The investigation carried out does not make it possible to establish with the certainty required by law whether Joris Van Hove has committed any infringements regarding these conditions or procedures prescribed by law,” according to the Court. It then recalls that in penal law, any doubt must benefit the accused.
This verdict is in fact very good news for the euthanasia lobby in Belgium, as it ensures that doctors may feel confident that even faulty euthanasia will not be sanctioned as long as they handle more or less according to legal conditions and can convince a jury that they did not openly go against the law.
Which is probably why the verdict was widely applauded by the mainstream press and deemed “courageous” by the accused’s lawyer, Walter Van Steenbrugge.
But for Tine’s family, many questions remain unanswered. They now have the possibility to ask for the cassation of the arrest in Belgium's highest judiciary court.
As for Van Hove, it was revealed during the course of the trial that he has an impressive judicial record. He received a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment and five years’ suspension of his civic rights in 2017 for sexual assault with violence and threats on two young male patients. In another incident, he was stunned and robbed by two male Bulgarian escorts after a sex party, leading to the judge in the case asking whether he could appropriately exert his profession as a doctor.
Van Hove has vehemently denied the incidents.
He says the Belgian Royal Order of doctors has never contacted him about them, nor about the sloppy euthanasia that led a whole family to face the courts rather than remain silent.