Belgian Convict Granted the Request to Die

Post written by Lucia Martinez Maroto, Comparative Law LLM candidate 2015, Pace Law School

A Belgian court last month granted the right to die to a convict who had been imprisoned for over 30 years. The inmate claimed that he was suffering from “unbearable psychological pain” and therefore requested the right to put an end to his life through euthanasia.

Frank Van Den Bleeken was convicted of murder and rape of a 19-year-old student in the late 1980’s and was serving a life sentence for those crimes. Due to his sentence he argued that he had no prospect of being released and found no way to overcome his violent sexual urges. He claimed that he was “a threat to society” and therefore wanted to exercise his right to medically assisted suicide in order to end his life.

The detainee is currently serving in the psychiatric wing of the prison and has undergone numerous treatments in order to ease the mental suffering he was going through. However, it has been proved in several cases that Belgium continuously fails to provide inmates with the needed psychological attention and treatments. The European Court of Human Rights has criticized them for the constant violation of human rights. Van den Bleeken has complained about the lack of therapy for his mental suffering and condition and, after rejecting the possibility of an early parole due to his incapability to overcome his sexual urges, claimed his wish to die rather than live under such intolerable suffering.

This case is just one of the fifteen cases of convicts who wish to put an end to their lives but Van Den Bleeken is the first one to receive legal permission from a court establishing this way a landmark ruling that will open the door to future cases.

Belgium, a predominantly Catholic country, is one of the first countries in the world to allow euthanasia under certain situations. The Belgian Euthanasia Law, passed on May 28, 2002, had a limited scope, restricting the access to the assisted suicide to those who were undergoing a severe physical and mental pain and were under a grave or untreatable situation. Nevertheless the requirements needed for the application of this law have begun to expand over the years, going from 24 patients who underwent this path in 2002 to 1,807 in 2013. The same situation can be found in Holland, the first country to legalize euthanasia, where there has been a tremendous increase of cases and euthanasia now takes up 3% of the total death poll of the country.

This sudden increase of people who are willing to put an end to their lives, and the recent approval of euthanasia on terminally ill children at any age, has opened a very controversial debate on whether people should have a right to decide when their life finishes and have the needed medical assistance to do so. This debate reopens the controversy found in innumerable cases of medical ethics.

On one hand, it has been said that euthanasia is the “ultimate humanitarian gesture”, allowing dignity to a foreseeable death and avoiding the insufferable pain that in many cases accompanies it. In the words of Van Der Bleeken: “I am a human being, and regardless of what I’ve done, I remain a human being. So, yes give me euthanasia,” he said during a documentary for the VRT Flemish Television.

On the other hand, it has been proved, as mentioned above, that the present formulation of the law has expanded its application to some cases where there are still certain opportunities to allow the patient to overcome the unbearable suffering that he finds himself experiencing.

In the case of Frank Van Den Bleeken euthanasia is seen as a solution for the suffering that he alleges to be going through, but when analyzing the situation we find that there are other solutions available for the convict, such as medical treatment that would allow him to overcome the situation that he finds himself in. Moreover, this situation proves to create a debate on whether he should be allowed to “take this way out” as many have put it, or if he should suffer from the decisions he took and therefore should serve out his entire sentence.

In most states of the U.S. euthanasia remains prohibited, except in Oregon and the District of Columbia, however we find that the death penalty is still present in 32 states. Of the 1,348 executions there have occurred since 1976, 11% of them were “volunteers”, inmates on death row who decide not to appeal their case. In Vice, Natasha Lennard wrote:

Belgium’s liberal euthanasia laws, broad enough to encompass mental anguish and the imprisoned, in some ways stand as an illustrative counterpoint to a US system that maintains an archaic enforcement of barbaric death penalties and (for the most part) a refusal to grant an individual’s liberty to end his or her own life, even in cases of terminal disease.

The question of euthanasia and the death penalty continues to be a taboo subject but we have to ask ourselves, if we have the right to life and liberty shouldn’t we have a right to die?

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