Belgian Court Rules Catholic Nursing Home Cannot Refuse Patients' Euthanization

July 8, 2016
Belgian Court Rules Catholic Nursing Home Cannot Refuse Patients' Euthanization

A Catholic nursing home in Belgium faces a 6,000 euro fine for refusing to allow doctors to euthanize a woman on their property.

Mariette Buntjens was a 74-year-old woman living in the Sint-Augustinus Catholic care home in northern Belgium. Buntjens, who was suffering from terminal lung cancer, had arranged an end-of-life plan with her doctor. However, when Buntjens wished to receive the lethal injection, the nursing home denied the doctor access to the property.

Buntjens’s relatives transported her to her home, where the injection was administered by her doctor “in peaceful surroundings,” Catholic Herald reported.

Euthanasia was legalized for adults and emancipated minors in Belgium in 2002. Before doctors administer a lethal injection, the law states, they must confirm the patient’s wish to be euthanized in writing and verify that the patient “is in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that can not be alleviated.”

By refusing to allow Ms. Buntjens her right to die, Buntjens relatives contended, the terminally ill woman was forced to endure “unnecessary mental and physical suffering.”

The court ruled that the nursing home “did not have the right to refuse euthanasia on the grounds of conscientious objection.” Sint-Augustinus will be obligated to pay 1,000 euro to each of the women’s three children, along with a 3,000 euro fine.

The ruling sets a precedent in Belgian euthanasia law, which states that individual doctors may refuse to administer a lethal injection to patients. The case ultimately clarifies of whether an institution—in this case, a religiously affiliated nursing home—has the same right to conscientious objection.

“It is now black and white that an institution cannot intervene in an agreement between doctor and patient,” said Sylvie Tack, the family’s lawyer.

United States-based Life News decried the ruling as an attack on the sanctity of life and an infringement on the Catholic nursing home’s religious liberty.

Forced to be complicit in homicide or pay damages!” wrote Life News contributor Wesley Smith. “Any society that violates religious liberty without a compelling reason…is a violator of human rights as defined by the United Nations.”

Pope Francis has similarly spoken out against the legalization of euthanasia. In 2014, he denounced the right to die movement as “a sin against the creator” borne out of a “false sense of compassion." 

“The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last,” Francis said.

Belgian oncologist Wim Distelmans, who has long been a pioneer of the euthanasia movement, lauded the court’s ruling as a necessary step in securing patients’ right to make their own decisions about their end-of-life care.

“When other institutions now want to reject euthanasia, they will think twice before they prohibit access to a doctor,” Distelmans said. “Such denials are still common, both in nursing homes and in hospitals. To turn the tide, this court decision is very important.”

Physician aid in dying (PAD) is currently legal in four U.S. states. Among the states that have legalized euthanasia, NBC News reports, there have been no local movements to change the laws due to abuse, misuse, or dissatisfaction.

“Relatively few dying people in either state actually request pills,” wrote Arthur Caplan, who heads the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. “Even fewer, maybe two-thirds of requesters, actually take them.”

In 2013, 1,800 Belgians ended their life through euthanasia.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Nursing Home. Photo by Brian Bullock, Flickr Creative Commons.