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Pope orders Belgian hospitals not to deliberately kill patients

By Cian Molloy - 21 August, 2017

One of the major problems with euthanasia legislation remains the arbitrary nature of the criteria used.

The Pope has ordered the Brothers of Charity Order in Belgium to ensure that euthanasia is not practised in hospitals and care institutions owned by the order and run by the Brothers of Charity Group.

Euthanasia, the deliberate killing of the terminally ill and/or those with disabilities, is legal in Belgium, but is condemned as morally wrong by the Church.

Therefore, there was some surprise in May this year when the Brothers of Charity Group announced it would allow doctors to perform euthanasia on psychiatric patients in “exceptional circumstances” where there were “no reasonable treatment alternatives”.

The group manages and administers hospitals and institutions owned by the Brothers of Charity Order, which is known in Belgium by the French and Flemish names Frères de la Charité and Broeders Van Liefde.

In a letter personally approved by Pope Francis, the Vatican has instructed the Brothers of Charity to end the practice in all of its centres in Belgium by the end of this month.

The Pope also ordered individual Brothers of Charity who serve on the management board of the Brothers of Charity Group to sign a letter to their Superior General declaring that they “fully support the vision of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, which has always confirmed that human life must be respected and protected in absolute terms, from the moment of conception till its natural end.”

Any brother who refuses to sign the joint letter renouncing euthanasia will face sanctions under Canon Law, reported Vatican Radio. If the group – which is registered as a charity – fails to comply, its officers can expect legal sanctions and, perhaps, expulsion from the Church.

The Superior General of the Order, Brother René Stockman, has welcomed the intervention, saying that the Vatican is backing the position that he and the Belgian bishops had taken on the issue, and that they could not accept euthanasia in any circumstances, including in the case of patients with a psychiatric disorder.

“When and who will decide that something can be exceptional and can be labelled as a persistent and desperate psychic suffering?” asked Bro Stockman. “What criteria will be used to determine something as an ‘exception’ and to concede that a medical procedure is pointless? One of the major problems with euthanasia legislation remains the arbitrary nature of the criteria used. We see that these are moving more and more. The text before us rightly emphasises that it is no longer a matter of terminal suffering, but only hopeless suffering. This is already a major shift compared with the criteria used in the creation of legislation.”

Fr Triest, founder of the Brothers of Charity

Since it was legalised there in 2002, Belgium is believed to have the world’s most unrestricted euthanasia regime, with some 1,400 patients being killed each year.

Since 2013, euthanasia of minors has been legal, providing the patient is assessed by psychiatrists to be mature enough to voluntarily ask to be killed. Now the deliberate killing of mentally ill and mentally disabled patients is being normalised.

However, Brother Stockman questioned if such patients understand the procedure and its fatal implications: “In psychiatric patients, we can ask ourselves serious questions about the ability thereabouts to make a reasonable decision.”

A spokesman for the Brothers of Charity Group says it has received the Vatican’s letter, but has not yet responded. According to Vatican Radio, the spokesman confirmed that hospital managers had received requests from mentally ill patients to have their lives ended, but he could not say if any of these patients had been euthanised.

The Brothers of Charity were founded in 1807 by Fr Peter Joseph Triest in the city of Ghent and the congregation is now active in 30 countries across the globe.

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