Belgium failed to properly review depressed woman's assisted suicide case, human rights court rules

A photo of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights sitting in the courtroom during a hearing.
A photo of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights sitting in the courtroom during a hearing. | Reuters/Vincent Kessler

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld Belgium's euthanasia law but ruled that the government didn't conduct a proper, independent review of the circumstances surrounding the case of a woman who suffered from depression. 

In a decision Tuesday, the Strasbourg international court rejected three of four charges made against Belgium by Tom Mortier, a Belgian national whose mother was euthanized in 2012.

Tom Mortier, a Belgian national who filed a complaint against his government before the European Court of Human Rights in 2017 over the country's euthanasia law.
Tom Mortier, a Belgian national who filed a complaint against his government before the European Court of Human Rights in 2017 over the country's euthanasia law. | ADF International

Mortier's mother, Godelieva de Troyer, was euthanized at the age of 64 because of "chronic depression" that she experienced for around 40 years. Mortier contends that doctors never consulted any of her family members. 

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According to court documents, Mortier believed that the state did not properly process the request and filed a criminal complaint against various parties in 2014, which was discontinued in 2017 due to "insufficient evidence." In November 2017, Mortier lodged a complaint against the Belgian government before the European Court of Human Rights.  

Mortier claimed his mother's assisted suicide violated Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the "right to life," and Article 8 of the convention, which protects the "right to respect for private and family life."

The judges ruled 5-2 that the Belgian euthanasia law did not violate Article 2, stating that "the statutory provisions on euthanasia constituted in principle a legislative framework that specifically ensured the protection of the right to life of the patients as required by Article 2 of the Convention."

Additionally, the judges ruled 5-2 that there was no violation of Article 2 "on account of the conditions in which the act of euthanasia had been carried out in the case of the applicant's mother."

"The Court took the view that it could not be said from the evidence before it that the act in question, performed in accordance with the established statutory framework, had breached the requirements of Article 2 of the Convention," they stated.

The judges also ruled 6-1 that there was no violation of Article 8. The court found that "the doctors assisting the applicant's mother had done everything reasonable, in compliance with the law, their duty of confidentiality and medical secrecy, together with ethical guidelines, to ensure that she contacted her children about her euthanasia request."

However, the human rights court ruled unanimously that the state failed to properly review the case in violation of Article 2. The court considered the "system put in place by the Belgian legislature for the review of euthanasia, solely on the basis of the anonymous part of the registration document, did not satisfy the requirements under Article 2 of the Convention."

The issue at hand is how the case was handled by the federal commission overseeing euthanasia.

"The procedure under section 8 of the Euthanasia Act did not prevent the doctor who performed the euthanasia from sitting on the Board and voting on whether his or her own acts were compatible with the substantive and procedural requirements of domestic law," the ruling states. 

"The Court considered that the fact of leaving it to the sole discretion of the member concerned to remain silent when he or she had been involved in the euthanasia under review could not be regarded as sufficient to ensure the independence of the Board."

The court found that the state "failed to fulfill its procedural positive obligation, on account of the lack of independence of the Federal Board for the Review and Assessment of Euthanasia and the length of the criminal investigation in the case."

ADF International, a conservative legal nonprofit that helped to represent Mortier, released a statement Tuesday expressing approval of the high court ruling in their favor on one of the counts.

Robert Clarke, deputy director of ADF International who argued before the human rights court, said that the ruling "counters the notion that there is a so-called 'right to die.'"

"Unfortunately, while the Court indicated that more 'safeguarding' is an appropriate solution to protecting life, in its own ruling, it makes clear that laws and protocols were indeed insufficient to protect the rights of Tom's mother," Clarke stated.

"It is unfortunate that the Court dismissed the challenge to the Belgian legal framework; however, the takeaway is that the 'safeguards' touted as offering protection to vulnerable people should trigger more caution toward euthanasia in Europe, and the world."

Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, allowing physician-assisted suicide for children and adults suffering from non-terminal illnesses like mental health problems. Labeled by PBS as "the world's most liberal law on physician-assisted suicide," surveys reportedly show the law has broad support among Belgian citizens. 

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