On October 25 in Brussels, a large majority of senators voted in favour of pushing the hitherto Catholic Belgium down the same euthanasia road as the once Protestant, now openly pagan Netherlands.
That day’s parliamentary session witnessed 44 senators voting in favour of the country’s euthanasia bill, and only 23 against. Two further senators abstained.
L’Osservatore Romano complained the following day that the legislation would, if implemented, make Belgium “the second European state to ask doctors not to heal, but to kill.” Yet before implementation occurs, two hurdles must still be surmounted.
First, in a reversal of Westminster practice, the legislation must now be sent to the Belgian Lower House. Second, even if the Lower House endorses it, the Bill must receive the assent of Albert II, Belgium’s King since 1993.
Albert is the brother of Baudouin, who unexpectedly succeeded to the throne in 1951 on the downfall of his much-traduced, wartime-compromised father Léopold III. King Baudouin, confronted in 1990 with an intransigent Parliament demanding that abortion be made legal, briefly abdicated rather than violate his Christian conscience by signing a bill which would doom unborn children.
The contrast between his behaviour in this regard, versus the ovine submissiveness of the House of Windsor and its vice-regal representatives when confronted with all legislation whatsoever, is instructive. (Almost three centuries have elapsed since any monarch of Britain or its former colonies dared to veto a parliamentary bill. The last to do so was Queen Anne, who died in 1714.)
Whether King Albert would seek to imitate, let alone emulate, King Baudouin is still unclear. The Reuters press agency reported him on December 23, 1999 as being “moderately supportive of assisted suicide.”
As with the Netherlands, so with Belgium, the euthanasia bill is ostensibly hedged about with safeguards. It requires that the euthanased patient be “of age and conscious”; that the person be already suffering from a “terminal medical condition” (though – and this is spelt out – not necessarily in the condition’s final phase); that the person be experiencing “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain”; and that the patient ask in writing, “freely and consistently” to be killed.
To a certain extent the ballot crossed party lines. Although sharp opposition came from Christian Democrats such as Senator Clothilde Nyssens (whom The Guardian quoted on October 26 as citing “lots of doctors who don’t like this law, who are afraid it gives them too much freedom”), senators could vote as they wished.
Foreshadowing such a poll, Guy Verhofstadt – Belgium’s Prime Minister since 1999 – referred briefly, tantalisingly and unctuously, in a May 2000 speech, to his desire that “Parliament … take full responsibility with regard to [ethical] issues, on the basis of everyone’s individual conscience and conviction, for example with regard to euthanasia.”
He said nothing, either then or in later media releases, as to what his own beliefs on the matter were. Nor does he need to. Unlike most Belgian Prime Ministers, who have depended for survival on concocting unstable coalitions not only from disparate parties but from disparate regions – Flemish-speaking and mainly Catholic Flanders, French-speaking and often anticlerical Wallonia – Verhofstadt enjoys an absolute legislative majority over the Christian Democrats, whom two years ago he drove into their first experience of opposition for 41 years.
Verhofstadt has led, since 1992, the Flemish Liberal Democrat Party (VLD), the dominant group in a bloc that – like the Olive Tree league which governed Italy until earlier this year – also includes Greens and Socialists. The VLD identified itself from the beginning as a post-ideological confection, “a party without dogmas”.
It should be noted that regardless of Verhofstadt’s own opinions, the euthanasia issue has been seething in Belgium for some years, though without Netherlands-style headline-dominating propensities.
The BBC reported on November 24, 2000 – basing its announcement on data from Brussels’ Free University and from the University of Ghent – that one Belgian death in every 10 during the first four months of 1998 was the result of euthanasia.
Whether the present bill becomes law or is rejected, the whole business speaks volumes for the continuing power of national legislatures, on a continent allegedly given over to EU supranationalism.
Of course, little facts like these cannot be expected to register in Britain: least of all in the consciousness of Britain’s so-called conservatives, whose endless whining about “EU dictatorship” implies approval of every national legislature, however ethically corrupt.
- R. J. Stove