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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 00:19 GMT
Doctors 'help kill one in 10 Belgians'
lethal injection
Thousands received lethal drugs without a request
More than one in ten deaths in Belgium is due to euthanasia or drugs given by doctors to hasten death, experts believe.

A survey of deaths registered during the first four months of 1998 revealed that thousands of deaths result from administration of lethal drugs "without the explicit request of the patient".

Euthanasia is illegal in Belgium, though an intense debate on legalisation has been continuing for years.

In a repeat of a study conducted in Holland, researchers from the Free University Brussels and Ghent University reviewed a random sample of all deaths registered over a four-month period.

After sending a questionnaire to the doctors signing the death certificates, they received sufficient responses to allow them to consider 1,925 deaths in detail.

They also seasonally adjusted their results and extrapolated them to estimate the likely situation across a whole year.

They concluded that 705 deaths a year (1.3% of the total) could be attributed directly to euthanasia or "physician-assisted suicide".

In as many as 3.2% of cases - 1,796 deaths - lethal drugs had been given without the request of the patient.

And in 5.8% of cases - 3,261 deaths - treatment had been withheld with the express intention of ending the patient's life.

Withdrawal of treatment

Additionally, some deaths could be attributed indirectly to the actions of medical staff.

Doses of opiod pain-killers like morphine, which can shorten life, had been given before deaths in almost one in five cases.

In 16.4% of cases overall doctors had made a decision not to carry out further treatment.

The researchers concluded that "end-of-life decisions" (ELDs) are common practice in the Flanders area of Belgium where the study was carried out.

Perhaps less attention is given to requirements of careful end-of-life practice in a society with a restrictive approach than in one with an open approach that tolerates and regulates euthansia

Dr Luc Deliens, Free University Brussels

The number of deaths which followed an ELD was similar to that found in Holland, where euthanasia has not been a criminal offence since 1994.

The researchers also concluded that the "rate of administration of lethal drugs to patients without their explicit request is similar to Australia" - where the first act of legal euthansia by administering a lethal injection was carried out in 1996.

Lead researcher Dr Luc Deliens, from the Department of Medical Sociology and Health Sciences at the Free University Brussels, said the study raised questions about why more doctors in Belgium and Australia than in Holland intentionally end the lives of their patients without an explicit request.

"Perhaps less attention is given to requirements of careful end-of-life practice in a society with a restrictive approach than in one with an open appraoch that tolerates and regulates euthansia," he said.

The British Medical Association held a consensus conference earlier this year to debate the issue of euthansia, and a wide range of views from within the medical profession were presented.

A BMA spokesperson said: "Doctors made it quite clear that they do not want to seek a change in the present laws governing euthanisa and physician assisted suicide.

"We remain strongly opposed to the practices."

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See also:

11 May 99 | Euthanasia
Holland: Almost legal
11 May 99 | Euthanasia
Euthanasia debate continues
11 May 99 | Euthanasia
Lessons from Down Under
27 May 99 | Euthanasia
Euthanasia and the law
01 Jul 99 | Euthanasia
A euthanasia glossary
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