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Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

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Religious care home refuses euthanasia in Belgium, causing popular uproar

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

Analysis

May 13, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — A care home run by the Catholic religious congregation of the Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus (Zusters Kindsheid Jesu) is currently under the spotlights of the Belgian press for having refused the euthanasia of an elderly inhabitant to take place on Wednesday, May 8. The woman’s son took his story to the press, complaining that he had had to “lobby” for his mother's death.

Ultimately, Liliane Vangenechten, 69, was moved to another hospital, where she was to receive a lethal injection on the planned date.

The case has given rise to fierce criticism of faith-based institutions where euthanasia is, if not impossible, at least difficult to obtain. Wim Distelmans, a cancer and palliative care specialist who has himself performed many a “borderline” euthanasia, and who is at present co-president of the Belgian Federal Euthanasia Commission, weighed in, saying no care home or hospital should be allowed to fall back on internal procedures in order to refuse euthanasia that meets all the legal requirements.

This is a new attack against the right to conscientious objection for Christian institutions that, as such, do not want to take part in the deliberate killing of their patients. But as matters stand, it can be expected that there will be no strong resistance on the part of the chain of twelve care homes for the elderly and demented run by the Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus.

The case started with a euthanasia request on the part of Liliane Vangenechten, who had borne “hellish pain” for the last four years, when cerebral ischemia left her paralyzed on the left part of her body and prone to uncontrollable attacks of nerve pain throughout her body — “as if she were continuously receiving electric shocks,” nieuwsblad.be described.

In November of last year, Liliane decided she could bear it no longer and submitted a request for euthanasia. “ Her quality of life was lower than zero. She has had enough,” her son, Mike Portaels, told the Belgian daily.

They worked through all the legal requirements — consultations, paperwork, etc. — and the date was fixed for Wednesday, May 8. Less than six days before that fateful moment, on Friday, May 3, Sint-Elisabeth, the Catholic care home where she had been taken care of for four years in Eeklo, Flanders, said the euthanasia would not go ahead. The care home’s management gave little explanation.

“Right at the moment when we thought everything was in order and we were already saying our final goodbyes, they told us coldly that the euthanasia would not take place. I cannot escape the impression that religious motives were at play. They told us flatly that the umbrella organization, Zorg-Saam Zusters Kindsheid Jesu, does not agree with the law,” Portaels told nieuwsblad.be.

Now, this would have been very much to that congregation’s credit, even though the method does seem surprising: why was Vangenechten able to plan her own euthanasia, presumably with the full knowledge of the carers at Sint-Elisabeth, if euthanasia was definitely not an option? And why did the refusal pop up suddenly, only days before the planned killing of their patient?

As it was, the woman's family and her personal doctor rushed to find an alternative solution. “An emotional roller coaster,” Mike Portaels called the situation. “It was harrowing and degrading,” he said. On Monday, May 6, the management of Sint-Elisabeth told him and his family they were prepared to have an emergency meeting, but without giving a possible date for the euthanasia. The AZ Alma regional hospital of Eeklo agreed to take up Mrs. Vangenechten; she was scheduled to be killed there on May 8, according to Nieuwsblad.be.

In the meantime, the “Zorg-Saam” umbrella organization of the Sisters of the Child Jesus published a statement about the case.

Following a euthanasia request from a resident of the WZC Sint-Elisabeth, a press report has been published alleging that we were refusing and preventing its execution within the walls of the facility.

In our capacity of managers and leaders of the non-profit organization Zorg-Saam Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus, we want strongly to refute this and place it in the right context. We choose to give care to our residents in which our ongoing presence, respect, reliability, sense of purpose and involvement are central during the entire stay. That is why a euthanasia request will always be carefully listened to in all our institutions.

Our vision is that any such question should be the subject of a consultation process in which compliance with the legal conditions and due care take precedence. We have a procedure for that. It is rooted in the legal framework, from which we do not want to deviate under any circumstances. This procedure is intended to protect the resident, family, employees, physician and organization alike. It goes without saying that only thorough consultation between all the parties concerned can lead to a high-quality, well-considered decision-making process. In our opinion, this trajectory has not been given sufficient opportunity to proceed. We regret that we have had to say goodbye in this way to our resident whom we have surrounded with care for 4 years.

Not a word is said in this statement about respect for human life and fundamental opposition to euthanasia.

So where were the Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus? The religious identity of their chain of care homes is noticeably discreet on Zorg-Saam’s website, while the congregation itself has no visible presence on the internet.

The website’s page on “Palliative sedation and euthanasia” does reject euthanasia in principle, but there is no clear systematic refusal of so-called mercy killing.

In a brochure in which Zorg-Saam’s end-of-life policy is set out, in which inhabitants are encouraged to leave end-of-life guidelines, they go a step farther. Speaking of euthanasia, the brochure states: “Although this form of ending of life is not our choice, we take all your questions regarding this very seriously. However, because of our Christian vision of life, we choose not to respond to a request for euthanasia. After all, we believe more in the benefits of loving and expert care, in closeness and involvement during your final phase of life. Implementing euthanasia will only be able to be considered by us when palliative care can no longer offer quality of life and when all palliative care options have been exhausted.”

In short: no, but there can be exceptions.

That is certainly the reason why the Sint-Elisabeth management was prepared to go into lower depths regarding Vangenechten’s euthanasia request.

It has not managed to escape media backlash — as it was apparently hoping to — since euthanasia-promoter Wim Distelmans stepped in.

He stated: “When all legal requirements have been met and there is an agreement between patient and doctor, they have no right to refuse euthanasia.” Distelmans quoted a care home in Diest — also in the Flemish part of Belgium — that was found guilty in 2016 of having refused euthanasia, calling it a precedent that must be taken into account.

Mike Portaels has already made known that he is planning to sue the Sint-Elisabeth care home for what happened to his mother.

In Belgium, protecting life, however half-heartedly, is now a risky business. Deliberate killing of the weak, on the other hand, is protected by law.

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