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Rights court OKs Belgium euthanasia law but faults review of depressed woman’s death

Godelieva de Troyer was 64 years old when she died by euthanasia in 2012. Her son says she didn’t really want to die.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court ruled Tuesday that a Belgian woman’s 2012 death by euthanasia did not violate international law, but faulted Brussels for failing to conduct a proper review of the case. 

The death of Godelieva de Troyer and a Belgian euthanasia law both comply with the right to life provision in the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights concluded, but the Strasbourg-based court took issue with the follow-up investigation. The ruling was only available in French.

The 64-year-old suffered from chronic depression and died in a Belgian hospital in 2012 by euthanasia, surrounded by friends. De Troyer’s son, Tom Mortier, brought the complaint to the rights court, claiming the legal process for euthanasia had not been followed and that his mother had been the victim of an overzealous doctor. 

Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, allowing patients suffering from untreatable and unbearable either physical or psychological suffering to choose to end their lives. Dr. Wim Distelmans, a right-to-die advocate and the co-chair of the country’s euthanasia review commission, eventually oversaw de Troyer’s death. 

Mortier, a university professor, first filed a criminal complaint against Distelmans, arguing the doctor had a conflict of interest and had failed to follow the proper procedure. Just before her death, de Troyer donated 2,500 euros ($2,470) to a nonprofit Distelmans founded which advocated for euthanasia. Mortier also claimed he had not been consulted before his mother’s death.

A judge initially rejected Mortier’s complaint, but authorities reopened the case in 2019 after discovering several documents were missing from de Troyer’s file. However, another review concluded in 2020 that her death had been carried out in accordance with Belgian law. 

The seven-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights agreed, finding there had been no violation of de Troyer’s right to life in the euthanasia process.

“The applicant's right to respect for private and family life was not infringed solely because his mother was euthanized,” the court wrote. 

Further, the court was critical of Mortier’s complaint about the lack of consultation, citing a “degraded relationship” with his mother. De Troyer did write both of her children an email saying that she had requested euthanasia. Mortier’s sister responded to the email, saying that she was sad but would support her mother. The case file showed that de Troyer’s doctors had encouraged her to further involve her children but she refused.

The “respect for the confidentiality of health information constitutes an essential principle of the legal system,” the ruling states.

However, the judges found fault in how the required review of de Troyer’s death was carried out. Since Distelmans served on the Federal Board for the Review and Assessment of Euthanasia, it couldn’t be guaranteed that the assessment was independent. The court also found fault with the Belgian authorities for a “lack of diligence” in the investigation.

In a statement Tuesday, Mortier expressed mixed feelings about the ruling.

“My hope is the ruling…puts the world on notice as to the immense harm euthanasia inflicts on not just people in vulnerable situations contemplating ending their lives, but also their families, and ultimately society,” he said. He was represented by ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organization. 

The case has attracted extensive media attention in Belgium and reignited the debate over the practice of euthanasia. The dispute was even the subject of a New Yorker article in 2015. 

According to Belgian authorities, some 27,000 people have died by euthanasia since the practice was legalized 20 years ago. Euthanasia is now legal in five countries in Europe: Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Spain. Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide since 1942 and three other countries - Austria, Finland and Norway - allow patients to stop life-extending treatments in the case of incurable diseases. 

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