A Belgian court on Friday acquitted three doctors who had been charged with manslaughter by poisoning, in a landmark case that for the first time charged health professionals criminally under Belgium’s euthanasia law.
Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002. It also is legal in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, but has long been debated in European countries. While certain forms of assisted suicide are practiced in France and Switzerland, the Belgian law goes further.
Belgium allows euthanasia if an individual who is incurably ill and encounters unbearable physical or psychological pain, makes a voluntary, well-considered and repeated request, without external pressure. Since 2014, minors can also request euthanasia under certain conditions.
The three doctors were facing life-imprisonment sentences over accusations that they had unlawfully poisoned a 38-year-old woman in 2010.
The woman, Tine Nys, requested euthanasia under the law in 2009, according to Joris Van Cauter, the lawyer for Sophie Nys, one of her two sisters, who said Tine Nys had suffered from depression and heroin addiction and had tried to commit suicide several times. A few months later, the lawyer said, she was diagnosed with autism by a psychiatrist.
She received a lethal injection on April 27, 2010, in the company of her parents and her two sisters.
But Sophie Nys later argued that Tine Nys had not received sufficient advice, and that doctors had not tried to treat her mental illness. She filed a complaint, saying Tine Nys had not been incurably ill, as the Belgian euthanasia law requires.
A minority of euthanasia requests are granted in Belgium when the patient has psychological issues. Sophie Nys’s complaint was initially rejected by a court but later permitted on appeal.
“It makes you wonder about medicine and how you make life or death decisions,” the lawyer, Mr. Van Cauter, said about the three doctors who were standing trial. “My client asked, ‘How can you say that you tried to treat her?’”
Mr. Van Cauter added that his client and her family had not wanted the doctors to go to prison; instead, they wanted an official acknowledgment that euthanasia should not have been administered under the circumstances.
“It’s a bit disappointing,” the lawyer said of the decision, adding that the way Tine Nys was treated “was very sad.”
After a two-week trial and eight hours of final debate, a 12-person jury in the criminal court of Ghent, in northwestern Belgium, cleared the three practitioners — the doctor who made the lethal injection, the general practitioner and a psychiatrist.
Walter Van Steenbrugge, the lawyer of one of the doctors, Joris Van Hove, said a conviction would have established a dangerous precedent for professionals practicing euthanasia. He said he and his peers had received dozens of letters from worried doctors who said they had halted euthanasia procedures for fear of legal consequences.
“My client is very relieved,” Mr. Van Steenbrugge said. “There was a lot at stake, not only for Belgium but for Europe in general.”
More than 2,350 people were permitted euthanasia in Belgium in 2018, according to the latest public figures.
In the Netherlands, a doctor was acquitted in September after having been accused of failing to secure proper consent from a 74-year-old patient who suffered from Alzheimer’s and had been administered euthanasia by the doctor.
In France, a 42-year-old nurse who had been in a vegetative state for more than a decade died in July, after doctors had stopped feeding him artificially, following years of legal battles.
The case that received the most attention in recent years in Belgium was 40-year-old Paralympian champion Marieke Vervoort, who was suffering from an incurable degenerative muscle disease, and who died last October, 11 years after having signed the papers paving the way to her death.
In Tine Nys’s case, Mr. Van Steenbrugge said the acquittal had sent a strong, reassuring message to doctors. “It was not manslaughter, it wasn’t a crime,” he said. “It was euthanasia.”