Pope Francis has ordered a Catholic charity in Belgium to cease euthanizations of mentally ill patients in their psychiatric centers by the end of August, or face excommunication.
The Brothers of Charity announced in May that doctors in their 15 psychiatric hospitals were free to euthanize non-terminal mentally ill patients upon request, according to the Associated Press. Francis personally approved a demand from the Vatican that the charity rescind that policy by the end of August or get expelled from the Catholic Church, according to Brother Rene Stockman, superior general of the order that runs the charity.
Stockman decried the charity’s decision to allow doctors to euthanize mentally ill patients, saying that doing so pushed them toward destruction rather than helping them away from it.
“To use euthanasia as a kind of ultimate therapy would be utterly unworthy of us,” Stockman said of his order. “It would be as if we were helping a patient who is on the verge of the abyss to take the leap of death, by giving him a little push. As far as I know, this is the very first time a Christian organization has classed euthanasia as ordinary medical practice.”
The the Belgian branch’s current policy concerning euthanasia requires that three doctors, including a psychiatrist, evaluate the mentally ill patient in question and determine that the patient is in a “state of unbearable suffering” and that there are “no reasonable treatment alternatives.”
“We take the unbearable and futile suffering and the request for euthanasia of patients seriously,” a statement from the charity’s Belgian branch reads. “In our facilities, we respect the freedom of doctors to carry out euthanasia or not, and the freedom of other healthcare providers to work with them or not. That freedom is also guaranteed by law.”
The Belgian charity stated that their policy seeks to “concretize” Belgian euthanasia law, which requires that euthanasia only be administered when a patient’s medical condition is hopeless. But Belgium has no objective legal definition of what constitutes a hopeless medical condition and leaves it open to interpretation according to an essay by Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Chair of Politics at England’s Hull University.
“Requests for euthanasia will be approved only if the patient is in a hopeless medical condition and complains of constant and unbearable physical or mental pain which cannot be relieved and is the result of a serious and incurable accidental or pathological condition,” Cohen-Almagor wrote of Belgian law.
“Thus, the law opens the door for physically healthy persons to request that their lives be ended because they are tired of life. Does a person who finds no meaning in life suffer unbearably? It would be very difficult, almost impossible, for an assessment committee to judge whether the criteria for euthanasia are satisfied, if the symptoms cannot be interpreted in the context of the physical condition,” the essay adds.
The Catholic Church condemns euthanasia, regardless of Belgian law, and the Vatican has begun an investigation of the Belgian branch of the charity, according to AP. In addition to reversing the group’s policy on euthanasia, those who serve on the charity’s board must sign a letter affirming to uphold the Church’s position on the sanctity of life and their opposition to euthanasia. Brothers who do not sign the letter will face individual sanctions, according to The Catholic Herald.
Belgium and the Netherlands are the only two countries that allow doctors to kill non-terminal mentally ill patients upon request.