Ten years after Belgian euthanasia law, opposition simmers

ATHENS, Ohio, March 14 (UPI) -- Against all odds, one 16-year-old Belgian teenager is still alive.

Tikvah Roosemont was born with about half a brain. Doctors predicted she would likely die before birth, during birth or shortly after. They advised her parents to abort her in the seventh month of gestation.

Lionel Roosemont, a professional guide to battlefield sites from World War I, said he and his wife wanted to give his daughter a chance to live and refused to abort her. Today Tikvah is not deaf, lame, blind or dead.

Ten years after euthanasia was legalized in Belgium, Roosemont is speaking out against the practice. He warns that some Belgians want to widen the scope of euthanasia -- the death of an adult caused by medical means at his or her own request.

Now, Roosemont said, people are discussing the possibility of legalizing abortion until the day before birth, the infanticide of handicapped babies or euthanasia of minors without parental consent.

Roosemont said in a telephone interview that few people dare speak openly against these issues but, because his daughter has been subjected to media attention for 15 years, he continues to challenge the law in an effort to protect what he calls “the sanctity of life.”

Roosemont said he and his wife are still accused of committing an ethical blunder by not aborting Tikvah. It is this that motivates Roosemont to campaign against euthanasia and other end-of-life decisions.

“We have to testify about our lives and about what is happening in Belgium as it is getting worse and worse today,” he said.

Under the law, a patient is not granted his or her request for euthanasia until a series of criteria is satisfied. There must be physical or psychological suffering that cannot be alleviated. The patient needs to make repeated requests and the treating physician must receive a concurrent opinion from one or more consulting doctors. Finally, the case is heard by a review board and the patient is offered other options to consider.

Kenneth Chambaere, a sociologist and researcher of end-of-life decisions in Belgium, said 80 percent of the Belgian population does not agree with Roosemont and his anti-euthanasia beliefs.

Activists for the euthanasia law, including Jacqueline Herremans, president of the French organization the Association for the Right to Die in Dignity, say it's having the choice that matters.

"There is only one person who is able to decide for me," Herremans said in a Skype interview.

But Roosemont argues that euthanasia conflicts with the fundamental beliefs of his country's political parties. The Christian Democrats should be against it for religious reasons, he said. The Liberal Democrats because of misuses of the law that have caused deaths without consent and Social Democrats because euthanasia victimizes the “weakest members of society," he said.

In a 2007 study, Chambaere researched the causes of all deaths in hospitals in Belgium's Flemish areas.

Two percent of deaths were due to euthanasia, and nearly 2 percent of deaths were without the patient's consent, the study concluded. In those cases, the cause of death was an illegal procedure usually performed by injecting a patient with increasing doses of morphine. In those cases, Chambaere said, the physicians intended to hasten the death of their patients, who were in comas or had dementia. Family members and other caregivers were not consulted in those cases, he said.

Roosemont described the phenomenon of deliberate killing in hospitals, both legal and illegal, as a “slippery slope.”

“Once you touch the sanctity of life, and I use sanctity in a non-religious way, you touch the sanctity of humanity,” he said.

Philippe Mahoux, the head of the Socialist Party in the Senate and one of the fathers of the euthanasia law in Belgium, said Parliament began debates about euthanasia in 2000 and eventually passed the law because there was a demand for it.

The three most common reasons for euthanasia requests are when a patient is suffering without prospect of improvement, when he or she is feeling a loss of dignity or experiencing pain, reported a study by Yanna Van Wesemael, a psychologist and researcher.

Wesemael’s 2011 study on the outcomes of euthanasia requests states that, since 2002, 48 percent of requests have been carried out. Some are withdrawn, some patients die before they receive approval and some requests are refused.

Roosemont says he sees signs that the attitude toward euthanasia in Belgium is increasingly found in other parts of the world, including the United States. He's concerned that a similar law could be introduced in the United States if Americans, like Belgians, view being able to choose when to die as an issue if personal freedom.

Roosemont said it is heart-wrenching to see so many people euthanized each year.

“I love my country,” he said. “It breaks my heart to have to be so open about what is happening at the moment in Belgium.”