Belgium grants killer the right to die

After a three-year legal battle, a mentally ill criminal imprisoned for almost 30 years has been given the right to end his life. What repercussions will this decision have?

Belgium has some of the most liberal laws on euthanasia in the world. It is a nation that considers the right to die for those suffering terrible pain as ‘the ultimate gesture of humanity’. But after a landmark legal ruling last week, that gesture will now be extended to prisoners, granting them the right to die for the first time.

Frank Van Den Bleeken, a 50-year-old convicted rapist and murderer, has spent the last 30 years in prison. In 2011, he began a three-year legal battle to end his life under Belgian law.

His lawyers had argued that he faced years of incurable mental anguish with no chance of relief or release from prison, due to his violent, uncontrollable impulses. Yet his case was rejected at first because of concerns that not all treatment options had been exhausted.

But last Monday, Van Den Bleeken finally won his case. He will now be granted a medically-assisted suicide by lethal injection at a hospital, and the chance to say goodbye to his family.

In some countries around the world, criminals are sentenced to death as a form of punishment, but rarely as a form of mercy. As the death penalty has been abolished in Belgium, Van Den Bleeken’s case is controversial. It is made more complicated by the fact that he is the first serving prisoner to be granted the right to die due to mental torment, rather than physical illness.

The Belgian parliament legalised euthanasia in 2002. Since then, it has become the first country to extend the law to those who are not terminally ill. Earlier this year, Belgium once again attracted controversy when it passed a law allowing terminally ill children, of any age, the right to die.

Others believe the victim’s relatives should have a greater say in the matter. They may find solace in the knowledge that the criminals who have caused them such distress are forced to live in prison, denied of their liberty.

Crime and punishment

Supporters of Belgium’s euthanasia laws argue that this decision is humane. Van Den Bleeken may be a criminal but he is still a human being, and as he has an incurable condition and lives in a country which permits euthanasia, he should be given the choice to die. After all, his crimes were committed long ago and he has served a long period behind bars. If a country grants its innocent citizens the right to die, it makes no sense to force its criminals to live.

But critics argue that this decision could lead to a de facto death penalty, and will open the floodgates for other prisoners who may wish to end their lives before completing their sentences. More should be done to improve psychiatric support for mentally ill prisoners, rather than simply letting them die.

You Decide

  1. Should prisoners be given the right to die?
  2. What is the purpose of prison?

Activities

  1. Class debate: 'This House believes that assisted dying should be legalised.’
  2. Do some research and find some examples of other countries around the world where euthanasia is legal. Write a short presentation describing the situation in each one.

Some People Say...

“Criminals do not deserve rights.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not planning on committing a crime, how does this affect me?
How a country treats prisoners is a reflection of its society and its values. Although most criminals should be in prison, serve long sentences and have some of their rights curtailed, they should not be denied their fundamental humanity. Yet debates over prisoner’s rights vary between countries. In the UK, there is disagreement over whether prisoners should be able to vote, for example.
What’s the situation in the UK on euthanasia?
Euthanasia is illegal and is regarded as either manslaughter or murder and carries a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Yet a 2010 BSA survey found that 82% of the public agreed that a doctor should be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful, incurable disease at their request.

Word Watch

Euthanasia
The act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve their suffering. It differs from assisted suicide, which is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves.
Mental torment
Critics say that it is harder to prove that Van Den Bleeken’s condition is incurable because it is a mental, rather than physical illness. The exact nature of Van Den Bleeken’s condition has not been made public due to his right to privacy.
Several recent cases
One such case was that of 45-year-old deaf twins who were granted the right to die on learning that they were going blind due to a genetic disorder.
De facto
A latin phrase that means something that happens in practice but is not necessarily ordained by law.
Floodgates
Another Belgian inmate was euthanized last year but he suffered from an incurable physical illness, rather than a psychological one.

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