Catholics excluded from unlawful euthanasia trial in Belgium

shutterstock 1159374742 Law Courts in Ghent, Belgium. | Shutterstock

A Belgian lawyer has admitted to searching the social media profiles of potential jurors to weed out "devout Catholics" for a trial. The lawyer is representing a doctor who is accused of "unlawfully poisoning" an autistic woman via euthanasia. 

Lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge, who is defense counsel for one of the three unnamed doctors on trial in Ghent, said that while he would not ban all Catholics from serving on the jury, he would be doing a poor job as a lawyer if he allowed a "devout" Catholic on the jury. 

Van Steenbrugge was quoted in Het Nieuwsblad, a Flemish newspaper, saying that lawyers "only get brief information about the jury members, and we have to deal with what we think about the candidates on social media." 

In particular, Van Steenbrugge said, a potential juror with a devotion to Mary would be disqualifying from the case. 

"It goes without saying that I will exclude people who turn out to be 'extremely Catholic,' for example if they express a great Marian devotion," he said. "We do not want a jury member who would appear to have ever written that euthanasia should be considered murder."

On January 14, Van Steenbrugge said that this process was "logical" and that he would be a "bad lawyer" if he did not exclude these jurors. 

There have been approximately 60 people who have been summoned as potential jury members for the death of Tine Nys. Nys, an autistic woman, died by euthanasia in 2010. Her relatives say that her condition did not reach the standard required for euthanasia in Belgium, and that she sought to end her life due to a failed relationship. Belgian law requires that a person have "constant and unbearable suffering" that is "incurable." 

Children are permitted to request euthanasia, as well as those with mental illnesses such as depression. Belgium's euthanasia laws are among the most liberal in the world. 

Nys' death is the first time doctors in Belgium have been charged with "unlawful poisoning '' after administering euthansaia. The doctors have not been named, but the BBC reported that they are the doctor who administered the drugs, her primary care physician, and a psychiatrist. 

Nys' sisters said that she had a history of psychiatric problems as a child, but had not received treatment for 15 years. They said she had been diagnosed with autism just two months before her death, and had not been treated for the condition.

Additionally, they say the doctors who carried out the procedure were "amateurish," and that one had requested that Nys' father hold the needle in his daughter's arm as he had forgotten to bring bandages. The doctor also requested that Nys' parents listen through the stethoscope to confirm that she was no longer breathing. 

Other lawyers have supported Van Steenbrugge's juror examinations, and said that it is common practice to search for a potential juror online and to look at their social media presence. 

Lawyer Kris Luyckx, who is not representing anyone in Nys' case, told Het Nieuwsblad that he works with social media professionals "who gather as much information as possible through open sources, as soon as we have a list of candidates." Luyckx said that the potential jurors are then color-coded depending on if they would be a good fit for the case.

"So I think it is not so strange that Mr. Van Steenbrugge would exclude very devout Catholics in this matter," he said. 

Another lawyer disagreed, saying that he personally does not exclude large groups of people due to their religion or other factors. 

"I think that is a step too far," said lawyer Walter Damen to Het Nieuwsblad. "How do you know for sure that Catholics or Christians are against euthanasia? And what about people who hold a different faith? In fact, even the greatest atheist can be against euthanasia," said Damen. 

About six people per day die by euthanasia in Belgium. In October 2019, four-time Paralympic medalist wheelchair racer Marieke Vervoort made headlines after she requested and received euthanasia.

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