A court in Belgium fined a Catholic nursing home for refusing to euthanize patients, thus opening the possibility that Catholic health facilities must comply with the country’s euthanasia laws or shut down.
A civil case was brought against the St. Augustine Home in Diest by the family of Mariette Buntjens. Buntjens, a terminal cancer patient, was a guest at the facility until 2011, when she obtained permission from a medical board to end her life.
Her family doctor was turned away by officials at the home when he came to perform the procedure. St. Augustine officials said the patient never discussed the arrangements with nursing home workers, nor had she even made her intentions known.
Buntjens was taken by ambulance to her home, where the procedure was performed later that day. Her family brought a case against the nursing home claiming it had no right to refuse the doctor entry. They further alleged St. Augustine’s decision caused Buntjens “unnecessary mental and physical suffering.” The nursing home argued she was legally required to discuss her plans with caregivers and staff.
A three-judge panel in Louvain ordered the hospital pay a fine of about $3,300 and a punitive payment of roughly $1,100 to each of Buntjens’ three children. The ruling opens the real possibility that Catholic healthcare facilities across the Belgium will have to agree to comply with the euthanasia law or close their doors.
Belgium has authorized the most liberal euthanasia regime in the Western world. Any adult may seek approval from medical professionals to terminate their life, provided evidence of acute physical or mental pain is present. Even a child may be euthanized with the consent of a parent. Approximately 1,400 Belgians utilize the procedure each year.
The ruling establishes that only individual medical professionals — not healthcare providers — may claim a conscientious objection to euthanasia, and that third parties (including other medical professionals providing care to a patient) may not interfere with an individual’s decision to end their life.
Dr. Wim Distelmans, colloquially known as Belgium’s “Dr. Death,” welcomed the development.
“This is an important case because the judge sees the nursing home as an extension of a private home,” he said, according to Catholic Herald’s Monday report. “When other institutions now want to reject euthanasia, they will think twice before they prohibit access to a doctor. Such denials are still common, both in nursing homes and in hospitals. To turn the tide, this court decision is very important.”
Belgian Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Brussels flatly refused in December to sanction any variant of the euthanasia procedure in Catholic hospitals or nursing homes.