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Voluntary Euthanasia Expert adds weight to calls for law change

MEDIA RELEASE:  28 May 2017 

A visiting Belgian medical expert says New Zealand would be wise to adopt laws to control physician assisted dying if it is to put an end to the clandestine practices currently going on to help the terminally ill in this country.

Professor Jan Bernheim, an oncologist, was among the founders of Continuing Care Community, the first palliative care organisation outside the UK, and pressed for the law change in Belgium, which as of 15 years ago allows physicians to assist irreversibly suffering patients who want to die.

“New Zealand and Australian studies show that euthanasia here is practised in the dark, as it was in Belgium before the law change in 2002. It is uncontrolled and liable to abuse. In Belgium we’ve put an end to the clandestine practice, and because of the openness of the whole process, abuse of the dying patient is much less probable now that it is legalised with strict controls and peer review in place.” The law also protects caregivers from undue prosecution.

Professor Bernheim says prior to the law change in Belgium, dying patients who requested euthanasia with the knowledge of their families or nursing staff were less likely to get it because doctors were worried they could be charged with murder if someone who knew about the request objected to euthanasia.

He says that ironically, before the law, dying patients with intractable suffering who did not request euthanasia were more likely to get their suffering shortened paternalistically by doctors. The legislation put an end to this sad paradox.

Professor Bernheim says New Zealanders should not be afraid of changing the law to regulate euthanasia. Those who object to it for personal religious or philosophical reasons will be respected, but should not impose their views on others. He says there would be strict controls in place and that the best control is openness, allowing peer review and control. Those who choose voluntary euthanasia have to be of sound mind, not coerced, beyond effective further medical help, repeatedly ask for assistance to die, and have at least two physicians’ consent. Each case must be reported for review by an expert independent controlling body.

There is a similar law in the Netherlands and since 2016 Québec, Canada, has enacted a law that largely reproduces the Belgian model of integral end-of-life care, namely euthanasia embedded in palliative care.

Under the Belgian law euthanasia is mainly administered at the end of a palliative care pathway (74% of physician-assisted deaths) but Professor Bernheim says this does not cause a wave of deaths. “It is for those who are already dying. In Belgium, voluntary euthanasia is just 4% (about 2000) of all deaths each year. As many people say, we do this for our pets when they are terminally ill. When people are suffering unbearably it is what any good physician would do.”

While Professor Bernheim said there were initial concerns from some of the religious groups in Belgium, since the law change a number of those have come around. “The Catholic congregation who run psychiatric care for a long time refused to allow euthanasia as part of their practice – they have now adopted it after seeing how the model works.”

And Professor Bernheim’s message to our Catholic Prime Minister, Bill English, is: “He can have a serious look at what his brethren in Belgium do and I think he might see that this is compatible with modern Catholicism. Often, ministers of the faith are in attendance. Those who attach major value to the spiritual dimension of dying should be made aware of the results of Belgian research showing that cases of euthanasia are preceded by much more intensive spiritual care than conventional death.”

Professor Bernheim is in New Zealand for a series of public talks around New Zealand entitled “Dying Well in Belgium”.

He has been brought to New Zealand by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Its president Maryan Street has set up an additional series of meetings to help health professionals understand the ramifications and how it works in Belgium.


Professor Jan Bernheim Public Meetings schedule:

Sun 28 May Hamilton

Mon 29 May New Plymouth

Tues 30 May Palmerston North

Thurs 1 June Napier

Sat 3 June Wellington

Sun 4 June Nelson

Sat 10 June Christchurch

Sat 17 June Auckland

Prof Bernheim Contact Details for media: Maryan Street 021 977 555

VES Media contact: David Barber 021 072 8760

Voluntary Euthanasia Expert adds weight to calls for law change

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