Death over the Counter: With 'Euthanasia Packs,' Belgium Takes a Step Down the Slippery Slope

By Mazgon-Fernandes, Marc | National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

Death over the Counter: With 'Euthanasia Packs,' Belgium Takes a Step Down the Slippery Slope


Mazgon-Fernandes, Marc, National Catholic Reporter


Earlier this year, the Belgian pharmaceutical firm Multipharma announced that it was placing on the market a "euthanasia pack" in its 250-odd pharmacies in Belgium.

The euthanasia packs are available only to physicians and cost about $74, which is not reimbursable by Belgian social security. They contain Pentothal, an anesthetic also known as "truth serum," which, according to a representative of Multipharma, provokes death in 90 percent of cases. Norcuron is included to finalize the euthanizing act for the remaining 10 percent. (Norcuron is derived from curare, a poison that paralyzes respiration, which is used by indigenous people in the Amazon.) A leaflet of instructions and material for installing a drip are also included.

Reaction to the packs in Belgium, which legalized active euthanasia in 2002, was muted.

In a statement, the Belgian Order of Physicians, a disciplinary body, said it was up to the doctor to "choose himself the euthanizing substances and the way of using them." The disciplinary body also said it did not consider euthanasia "a medical emergency."

The physicians' order had said in 2003 that it had to conform to the law, and that it could not condemn physicians who performed euthanasia. The World Medical Association severely criticized this position of the Order of Physicians.

The Belgian Order of Pharmacists denounced the euthanasia packs as "disguised publicity" to promote a "limited group of pharmacies." The order also worried that the packs violated the discretion and confidentiality of prescriptions that its members pledge to honor.

Subsequently, a bill was introduced in Parliament to exempt pharmacists from prosecution if they sell euthanizing drugs (though most of these drugs are also sold as anesthetics). The bill also sought to ensure the availability of euthanizing substances.

Whether pharmacists can invoke a "clause of conscience" to refuse filling prescriptions remains an open question.

Professor Etienne Montero lectures in civil law at the Catholic University of Namur and edited a 2004 collection of essays on euthanasia, Suffering in Dignity in the Twilight of Life. He told NCR that the euthanasia packs take away any respect for the "intrinsic value of life."

He pointed to the packs as evidence of the "trivialization" of euthanasia and a sign that Belgium is going down a slippery slope. Legalizing voluntary euthanasia under "restrictive conditions" was only the first step in an ineluctable evolution toward the euthanasia of people unable to "consent," Montero said.

For Jesuit Fr. Thierry Lievens, who teaches moral theology at the Institut d'Etudes Theologiques of Brussels, "what is frightening is that a technical logic governs these decisions."

"The death of another becomes a technical act that is equivalent to building a house," he said. "From there, it is logical that a technical act will fall into the commercial domain."

He then quoted St. Ignatius of Loyola: "Human nature is such that we give little importance to venial sins, then we give little importance to mortal sins, and this leads to all the perversions."

In 2002, after the adoption of the act permitting euthanasia, the Belgian bishops' conference issued a statement decrying that Belgium had become "one of the rare countries where it is legally allowed to deliberately kill a human being" and that the state believes "that some human lives have less value than others."

The church, however, was less strident before the law was passed.

In 2000, the Catholic University of Louvain-la Neuve published an official statement on euthanasia. It said, "The first and the last word on the question of euthanasia are not on the side of the prohibition." This prompted calls to strip the university of its "Catholic" designation, calls that were not answered by the Belgian bishops.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who holds the position of the university's "great chancellor," likely protected the university. …

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