A Flemish doctor, now under investigation, discusses the number of deaths he has caused or else facilitated
Ian Birrell, writing for the Daily Mail, spoke to palliative care physician Marc Van Hoey about his involvement in euthanasia:
'As we sit in his cosy first-floor surgery in Antwerp, surrounded by books and mementos of his life in medicine, I ask this music-loving 57-year-old physician and president of Right To Die Flanders how many people he has personally killed since Belgium made euthanasia legal in 2002.
'"Maybe 140," he concludes after a quick calculation, adding that he has advised perhaps another 500 on euthanasia procedures. "But they did not all go through with it and die, of course."'
The notion of doctors feeling content to facilitate deaths in great numbers is far from novel: in Oregon last year, for example, at least one doctor wrote 29 prescriptions for lethal drugs, averaging out to more than one a fortnight. (The same report also reminds us that doctors there write prescriptions on knowing patients for as little as a week, with only five out of 143 now deceased patients having been referred for psychiatric evaluation.)
Euthanasia and assisted suicide officially accounted for 8,894 deaths across Belgium and The Netherlands last year - a figure which would extrapolate to more than 20,000 based on a UK population - numbers having risen aggressively across twenty years of legalisation, but it is only very recently that investigation of irregularities and impropriety seems to be being taken more seriously. Last year, Dutch authorities agreed to investigate the death of a woman who had earlier stated a preference for euthanasia but struggled at the appointed time and so was drugged, and ultimately restrained by family members at the doctor's request, to allow the lethal injection.
Birrell reports of Van Hoey:
'The Flemish doctor... cannot carry out any more mercy killings as he is being investigated by police over the euthanisation of an elderly woman in 2015 who was threatening to commit suicide after the sudden death of her daughter.
'If the case goes to court, he could be charged with poisoning his patient. "It is like the Sword of Damocles hanging over me," he said. "It's very worrying but my conscience is clear."
'The case highlights the delicate dilemmas on this difficult issue, even in the world's most permissive societies such as Belgium, the second country in the world to legalise euthanasia after Holland and the first to authorise it for children of any age.
'It coincides with a formal criminal investigation into three Belgian doctors over the death of a 38-year-old woman called Tine Nys that made headlines around the world last week.
'She was diagnosed with a mild form of autism just two months before she was killed, and her sisters allege there were 'irregularities' leading up to her death, while questioning the validity of the sudden diagnosis.'
Curiously, Van Hoey says of the investigation that he feels a Sword of Damocles hangs over him. Readers may recall the image being invoked during debate on Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill, when Archbishop Justin Welby wrote:
'It would be very naive to think that many of the elderly people who are abused and neglected each year, as well as many severely disabled individuals, would not be put under pressure to end their lives if assisted suicide were permitted by law.
'It would be equally naive to believe, as the Assisted Dying Bill suggests, that such pressure could be recognised in every instance by doctors given the task of assessing requests for assisted suicide. Abuse, coercion and intimidation can be slow instruments in the hands of the unscrupulous, creating pressure on vulnerable people who are encouraged to "do the decent thing". Even where such pressure is not overt, the very presence of a law that permits assisted suicide on the terms proposed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton is bound to lead to sensitive individuals feeling that they ought to stop "being a burden to others". What sort of society would we be creating if we were to allow this sword of Damocles to hang over the head of every vulnerable, terminally ill person in the country?
'This is a moral decision: it is not compassion if in voting for my companion I expose others to danger.'