For many, the right to choose the time and manner of one’s death is fundamental to human dignity and liberty. But what if that liberty has been taken away by the State? This was the question raised by Frank Van den Bleeken, a Belgian prisoner and murderer who in 2014 requested to be euthanised under Belgian’s liberal euthanasia laws.
The potential for prisoners to access euthanasia raises intriguing questions about patient autonomy, the nature of suffering and the purpose of punishment. In Van de Bleeken’s case, the issue was even more controversial as his main reason for seeking the procedure was psychological distress – which is allowed under Belgian law.
With an aging prison population combined with an increased acceptance of euthanasia laws globally, the validity of a prisoner’s right to die is likely to be a key question within the next decade.
One of the key issues raised by the case is what is the purpose of imprisonment? Is it to detain dangerous individuals? To punish them? To make them suffer? The contradictions present in our current criminal justice goals should be painfully obvious. After all, in the US they save people from suicide attempts on death row.
For Dr Phillip Nitschke, the suffering caused by imprisonment justifies the prisoner’s right to die. Writing for The Guardian in 2014, he noted:
Imprisonment for life, with no hope of parole, is torture. I thought then and now that a modern civilised Australia should not be involved in torture, no matter the crimes of the prisoner.
But there are concerns that such reasoning hinders efforts for prison reform. Auke Williams argues that shifting the discussion to a ‘right to die’ focuses responsibility for psychological suffering away from corrections, allowing the poor provision of psychiatric treatment to prisoners to go unchecked. Moreover, Carine Brochier of the European Institute of Bioethics has referred to the Van den Bleeken case as “death penalty through the backdoor”.
Then there were the views of the families of Van De Bleeken’s victims. The sisters of Christiane Remacle, a 19-year-old girl raped and strangled to death by Van Den Bleeken, were very public that they wanted to see him “languish in prison”. What significance do we place on their need for retribution?
Ultimately, Van Den Bleeken’s request for euthanasia was rejected. However it is unlikely he will be the first prisoner to request a quick release over a lifetime of incarceration.
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