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Medicine

Doctors euthanised Belgian woman Tine Nys because she had Asperger’s, a mild form of autism. Was killing a crime?

  • Tine Nys, 38, had been told she had Asperger’s syndrome just two months before her request to be killed was carried out
  • The killing, which horrified her family, has triggered the first criminal investigation into a euthanasia case in Belgium
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 12:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 8:50pm

Belgian officials are investigating whether doctors improperly euthanised a woman with autism, the first criminal investigation in a euthanasia case since the practice was legalised in 2002 in the European nation.

Three doctors from East Flanders are being investigated on suspicion of having “poisoned” Tine Nys in 2010. The 38-year-old had been given a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, two months before she died in an apparently legal killing that she had sought from a doctor.

Belgium is one of two countries, along with the Netherlands, where euthanasia of people for psychiatric reasons is allowed if they can prove they have “unbearable and untreatable” suffering.

Among Belgians euthanised for mental health reasons, the most common conditions are depression, personality disorder and Asperger’s.

It is a seriously dysfunctional, wounded, traumatised family with very little empathy and respect for others
Dr Lieve Thienpont, on the family of Tine Nys

Many experts – in Belgium and beyond – dispute whether autism should be considered a valid reason to be a euthanasia candidate.

Last year, Associated Press reported that after Nys’s appalled family filed a criminal complaint, alleging numerous “irregularities” in her death, her doctors tried to block the investigation.

“We must try to stop these people,” wrote Dr Lieve Thienpont, the psychiatrist who approved Nys’s request to die – and one of the doctors now facing charges. “It is a seriously dysfunctional, wounded, traumatised family with very little empathy and respect for others.”

Sophie Nys, one of Tine’s sisters, said that the doctor who performed the euthanasia asked her parents to hold the needle in place while he administered the fatal injection, among other fumbling efforts.

Euthanasia is used in 4.5 per cent of all deaths in the Netherlands

Afterward, the doctor asked the family to use a stethoscope to confirm that Tine’s heart had stopped.

Belgium’s Chamber of Indictment “presumes that there are sufficient indications in this particular case” and the doctors involved have been referred to the Court of Assize in Ghent.

They will now face trial “due to poisoning”, said Francis Clarysse, a Ghent prosecutor. It is unclear when a trial might begin and the doctors could still appeal the decision. The charge of poisoning carries a maximum penalty of a lifetime sentence.

Concerns have previously been raised in other cases about whether Thienpont, Nys’s psychiatrist, too easily approved euthanasia requests from patients with mental illnesses.

Associated Press previously published documents revealing a rift between Thienpont and Dr Wim Distelmans, who heads Belgium’s euthanasia review commission. Distelmans voiced fears that Thienpont and her colleagues may have failed to meet certain legal requirements in some euthanasia cases – and wrote that he would no longer accept patients referred by Thienpont.

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“I think this [trial] has symbolic importance in the sense that it sends doctors a message … that you could be accused of a very serious crime and prosecuted if you do not comply with the legal requirements for euthanasia,” said Penney Lewis, a law professor at King’s College London. “The prospect of criminal investigation may act as a mechanism to make doctors more careful.”

In the 15 years since doctors were granted the right to legally kill patients, more than 10,000 people have been euthanised. Only one case has previously been referred to prosecutors; that case was later dropped.

Lewis said that because Belgium does not routinely publish details of worrisome euthanasia cases, it was difficult to know if there might be a more widespread problem.

Earlier this month, Dutch officials announced they would also prosecute a doctor who euthanised a woman with dementia, also marking the first time the Netherlands has charged a physician for possible wrongdoing in performing euthanasia.