Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent
June 30, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — A Catholic nursing home in Diest, Belgium, was condemned by a civil court in Louvain on Wednesday for having refused to allow an inmate to be euthanized on its premises in 2011.
Huize Sint-Augustinus was ordered to pay damages of 6.000 euros (about $6.65 U.S.) to the elderly woman’s family for forcing them to organize her death at her own home after the nursing home’s directors denied access to her doctor, who had come to give her a lethal shot.
While the amount of compensation for “moral damages” is minuscule, the ruling is seen as a landmark decision in Belgium insofar as it is a warning for any institution that does not accept the application of the euthanasia law and that it clearly rejects conscientious objection rights for collective institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the elderly.
Surely, these are few and far between in Belgium, where the average “Catholic” hospital will in general accept euthanasia to be performed within its walls.
The civil court of Louvain clearly states that “the nursing home did not have the right to refuse euthanasia on the grounds of conscientious objection,” thus restrictively interpreting the law that proclaims that right for individual doctors, but does not make clear whether institutions may benefit from it or not.
This is the first time in Belgium that a judicial court has weighed in on such a case, and its stance was made in general terms.
The decision did go into the details on the case, however. The three-judge court, which was established to judge the affair, found that the way in which the Huize Sint-Augustinus rejected the euthanasia procedure was unacceptable.
Mariette Buntjens, 74, was a terminal metastatic lung cancer patient whose suffering became increasingly difficult to bear. Her euthanasia request was made six months before her ultimate demise, involving the completion of official documents and a series of consultations with a doctor not affiliated with the nursing home who was to perform the act.
According to Buntjens’ three children, everything appeared to be going smoothly until a few days before the scheduled date when the directors of the Sint-Augustinus home informed the patient and her family that the doctor would not be given access.
In its ruling, the court questioned the objections raised by the nursing home through an email sent to the doctor who was to perform the euthanasia, as well as to the consulting doctor who had vetted the request. “The directors asserted that the legal conditions for euthanasia had not been met, but in their text no mention was made of the precise conditions that were not fulfilled,” wrote the judges, adding that the family had the request and further documentation relative to the euthanasia in perfect order.
The judges awarded 3.000 euros in damages to Buntjens on the grounds of the increased suffering she experienced, to be shared among her three children, as well as 1.000 euro for each. The Belgian media expect the Grey nuns of Sint-Annendael, who run the nursing home and who faced the charges brought by Buntjens’ children, to appeal the decision.
But a precedent has been created. Under Belgian law, euthanasia remains a crime and only escapes punishment – theoretically at least – when stringent conditions are met and two doctors agree that they have been met while follow-up controls are made by a special commission that vets each act’s legality. This is certainly bad enough, but under the letter of the law, euthanasia is not a patient right. The Louvain ruling is acting as if it were.
Other questions arise. Former senator Patrik Vankrunkelsven believes “this judgment puts an end to 10 years of judicial uncertainty.” He is a general practitioner and the consulting doctor in the Buntjens affair – for his own brother, Stefan Vankrunkelsven, who was to carry out the euthanasia in the Sint-Augustinus nursing home and who did so in her own house. “I am very moved by the judgment,” Patrik Vankrunkelsven commented on Wednesday afternoon. “The resistance deployed by the institution was not right. We now have proof that they cooked up a story. My brother could perfectly well have performed euthanasia in the nursing home.”
He called the ruling “an important precedent: This is the first time in our country that a judge states that an institution cannot refuse euthanasia,” ending the “uncertainty” that had led parliamentarians to put questions to the government on the issue for several years now.
Was the Buntjens’ affair used to political advantage by the euthanasia lobby? There does appear to be a measure of activism in play.
According to Sylvie Tack, legal counsel for the Buntjens family, the ruling is important because it indicates that a nursing home cannot come between a patient and his or her doctor.
Wim Distelmans, chairman of the federal euthanasia committee who has been involved in a number of “borderline” euthanasia cases, was delighted. He underscored that the ruling sees nursing homes as an “extension” of the patient’s own home. This is obviously detrimental to the religious and freedom of conscience rights of institutions, including denominational institutions.
According to Distelmans, doctors tell him the refusal of euthanasia requests is “frequent” on the part of hospitals and nursing homes, a majority of which are run by Catholic congregations in Flanders. “To turn the tide, this court ruling is very important,” he said, which suggests the Buntjens affair was indeed a test case.
Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, recently named the head of the diocese of Mechelen-Brussels, said in December a few days before the affair received media attention that Catholic institutions have a right to refuse abortion and euthanasia, provoking public outrage at the Church’s “meddling” with secular affairs.
These remarks were surprising to many, as large numbers of Catholic health facilities openly and freely provide euthanasia in the diocese of which he is the pastor. The archbishop did not go so far as to say they are morally obliged to refuse euthanasia, limiting himself to pleading for freedom of conscience.
But you can’t fight the deliberate killing of human beings with relativism.