By Michael Cook
“They were very happy. It was a relief to see the end of their suffering. They had a cup of coffee in the hall, it went well and [they had] a rich conversation. The separation from their parents and brother was very serene and beautiful. At the last there was a little wave of their hands and then they were gone.”
Under Belgian law euthanasia is allowed if “the patient is in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident”.But the Verbessem brothers were not terminally ill. A doctor at their local hospital said, “I do not think this was what the legislation meant by 'unbearable suffering’". Professor Distelmans was nonchalant: “One doctor will evaluate differently than the other."In an email interview, Jacqueline Herremans, president of Belgium's Association for the Right to Die with Dignity, told me that euthanasia should be made available to many more people:“When we opened the debate almost 15 years ago, the first thought was for people suffering from incurable cancers. And it is still cancer which is the origin of almost 80% of the cases of euthanasia.But we must admit that suffering may exist in other circumstances. MS, ALS, Parkinson’s are obvious.
But what about psychiatric disorders without any possibility of cure?What about ageing persons with several medical affections losing their autonomy and seeing no more sense to their life, knowing that tomorrow is going to be worse than today?What about Alzheimer’s patients?”
Marc and Eddy Verbessem’s problems were complex. They were shy and withdrawn. Soon they would be not only deaf but deaf and blind. It was difficult for doctors to communicate with them. The easiest way to unravel their social problems was to end them forever.However, as deaf communities pointed out, being deaf and blind is not a death sentence. After all, America’s best-known deaf/blind person, Helen Keller, travelled the world, wrote books and became an ardent propagandist for socialism.In fact, a Canadian deaf/blind activist was dumbfounded. “I wonder if the deaf/blind Verbessem twins know… the education that was available, the Deafblind community in Belgium around them, the tools that were out there for them to keenly acquire so that their fears of going blind would be soothed with their own amazement and comfort?” Coco Roschaert wrote on her blog.
More to the point: did the doctors who euthanized them know? Did they care?
Supporters of legalized euthanasia insist that safeguards in the legislation restrict euthanasia to the most difficult cases. In fact, it is becoming easier and easier to be euthanized in Belgium. A report published late last year by the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics has claimed that euthanasia is being “trivialized” and that the law is being monitored by a toothless watchdog. After 10 years of legalized euthanasia and about 5,500 cases, not one case had ever been referred to the police.The case of the Verbessem twins also shows that procedure is far from transparent. If a prisoner dies in jail, all the facts are made available to the public. If a patient is euthanized, the public may never even find out that it happened. For example, little is known about the health of the twins, how they communicated with the doctors who killed them, whether their social support was adequate, why another hospital had turned down their request, how much counseling they had received.Doctors naively ~ or is it arrogantly? ~ want the public to know as little as possible. “I have been very surprised [that] there is so much interest and debate about this,” Dr Dufour said.
Professor Chris Gastmans, of the Catholic University of Leuven, criticized the deaths as an impoverished response to disability."Is this the only humane response that we can offer in such situations? I feel uncomfortable here as ethicist. Today it seems that euthanasia is the only right way to end life. And I think that's not a good thing. In a society as wealthy as ours, we must find another, caring way to deal with human frailty."
Both Eddy and Marc were charged 180 Euros each for transporting their bodies back home. This macabre detail shouldn’t surprise us. China also charges the families of the people it executes. It's called a bullet fee.
In 2011, the last year for which official figures are available, 1133 people were euthanized in Belgium. A few days after the Verbessem brothers died, the government announced that it would amend the law to allow minors and people with dementia to be euthanized as well.