Belgium-Euthanasia: Is the conscience clause legitimate?

The conscience clause that certain health institutes put forward in order to not apply the law on euthanasia in Belgium will be subject to a non-biding opinion of the bioethics consulting comity, in which "one part tends to prove" that there exists "no legal basis" permitting to affirm that it might be "legitimate", indicated one of its members Tuesday, however recognizing that there was no unanimity regarding the subject.

The law on euthanasia permits the doctor to put forward the conscience clause but many observers affirm that the "institutions" (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) also have policies to integrate this in their work relationships with the medical body. In 2003, a doctor was fired. He had practiced an act of euthanasia while his hiring institution's philosophy did not accept these medical practices, although legalised.

He won his case in front of an arbitration board but only because of a procedural error in his dismissal. The case was still pending before the courts. Certain people asked for an accrued protection of doctors and a better guaranty of the patients rights.

Four of the fifteen law propositions are currently being debated in the Senate for an extension of law on euthanasia and are notably aiming to clarify the framework of the conscience clause. Certain texts include an obligation that the doctor upholding an objection of conscience, inform his patient in order to enable him to assert his rights, others to send him towards social services ad hoc, others finally force the doctor in question to refer his patient to a colleague who is apt and willing to meet their grievances.

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If Pauline Marois' governmental bill were to quickly see the light of day, Quebec doctors would be forced to refer the patient to a doctor who is willing to give death by euthanasia to a patient who requested it and who would meet the established criteria set out by the Collège des médecins.

For the past 10 years, the Belgians respected the doctor's objection of conscience ( i.e: no obligation to refer to another doctor practicing euthanasia). We now observe that the tendancy in Belgium is to broaden the law's criteria and that the respect of these conditions is becoming impossible to control. "The experience of 10 years of euthanasia in Belgium show that the markers to pave the way are impossible to control and that they keep falling one after the other," affirms Me Étienne Montéro, dean of the faculty of law of the Université de Namur.