Belgian nurses say the country's growing euthanasia culture is in 'complete contradiction' to their training

Belgian nurses and social workers who specialise in treating dying patients are quitting their jobs because palliative care units are being turned into “houses of euthanasia”, a senior doctor has alleged.

Increasing numbers of hospital staff employed in the palliative care sector are abandoning their posts because they did not wish to be reduced to preparing “patients and their families for lethal injections”, according to Professor Benoit Beuselinck, a consultant oncologist of the Catholic University Hospitals of Leuven.

He said that after more than 15 years of legal euthanasia in Belgium “palliative care units are … at risk of becoming ‘houses of euthanasia’, which is the opposite of what they were meant to be”.

Prof Beuselinck said palliative care nurses found the demands for euthanasia an “impossible burden” and a “complete contradiction of their initial desire to administer genuine palliative care to terminally ill patients”.

“Some Belgian palliative care units that have opened their doors to patients requesting euthanasia have seen nurses and social workers leaving the unit because they were disappointed that they could no longer offer palliative care to their patients in an appropriate way,” he continued.

“They were upset that their function was reduced to preparing patients and their families for lethal injections.”

The comments of Prof Beuselinck came in an essay for a new book, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: Lessons from Belgium.

His contribution is one of a number of a highly critical analyses of how legal euthanasia has corrupted Belgian medicine by undermining palliative care and by putting patients in lethal danger.

As euthanasia has become a “normal way of dying”, he said, he has encountered some cancer patients afraid to go hospital in case they are either coerced into euthanasia or are deliberately killed without their consent.

He said he was convinced that euthanasia was a “genuine threat to the practice of medicine” and complained that the rights of medical professionals and healthcare institutions to object were insufficiently protected.

As a result, hospital doctors evaded requests for euthanasia by referring them to the palliative care unit, “thinking that the doctors in the unit are used to dealing with end of life issues”, he said.

“Consequently, doctors working in palliative care units will, unfortunately, have to euthanise patients who have been referred specifically for this,” he said.

“As a result of this evolution, some palliative care units have decided to no longer admit patients if they have an active euthanasia request to prevent their palliative care units from becoming the executing unit of all demands of euthanasia in the hospital.”

Those which did allow euthanasia found themselves overburdened and losing highly-trained staff.

Also in the book, four senior end-of-life care specialists claim that euthanasia campaigners are hostile to palliative care because they see it as an obstacle to their objectives.

They specialists also say that the government is cynically slashing palliative care budgets year on year at the same time as numbers of people who die by euthanasia in Belgium are rising incrementally.

A British contributor, Dr Trevor Stammers of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London, predicted in his article that Belgium would soon effectively re-introduce the death penalty by permitting the euthanasia of prisoners so their organs be harvested for transplant surgery. He said about 15 prisoners had already elected to die this way.

The book has been co-edited by David Albert Jones of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Chris Gastmans of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and Calum MacKellar of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.

Its purpose is to accurately inform debates on doctor-assisted dying and is aimed at “students, academics, legislators and anyone interested in legal, medical, social and philosophical ethics”.

Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2003, a year after neighbouring Holland, and it now has one of the most permissive euthanasia regimes in the world.

Technically, euthanasia remains an offence, with the law protecting doctors from prosecution only if they abide by carefully-set criteria.

It is limited to adults who are suffering unbearably and who are able to give their consent and to “emancipated children”.

Official figures have revealed that numbers of doctor-assisted deaths have doubled within five years, soaring from 954 in 2010 to 2,021 in 2015.

Critics have argued the law is interpreted so liberally that euthanasia is effectively available on demand and that doctors are now giving lethal injections also to the disabled, demented and mentally ill.

The publication of the book comes as the Vatican tries to dissuade the Brothers of Charity group, a Catholic organisation, from permitting the euthanasia of mental health patients on its premises.

Earlier this month, Auxiliary Bishop Jean Kockerols of Mechelen-Brussels said that the Church and the medical profession was concerned that euthanasia was out of control in Belgium, with practitioners effectively operating with impunity.