Frank Van Den Bleeken is currently serving a life sentence in Belgium for sexual assault and murder. Three years ago, he asked to be allowed to die arguing that, due to his psychiatric condition, he would forever be “a danger to society.” A panel of medical experts granted Van Den Bleeken the right to die.
Since Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, approximately 1,400 people per year choose to end their lives with the help of a Doctor. Euthanasia has always and will always be a contentious topic, and rightly so; it is not an issue that the human race should ever become complacent about. I personally, cautiously err on the side of supporting an individual’s right to choose what to do with their own life. Having never experienced excruciating and unceasing pain, nor having ever been told that the remainder of my life will consist of a slow and irremediable deterioration, I do not feel it right for me to judge those who choose to be euthanised. However, I believe that Belgium’s liberal approach to euthanasia has gone too far.
The case of Van Den Bleeken troubles me on many different levels. Whilst the prisoner has admitted he is a danger to society, he also commented: “What am I supposed to do? What’s the point in sitting here until the end of time and rotting away? I’d rather be euthanised.” Belgium outlawed Capital Punishment in 1996, and thus, Van Den Bleeken’s crime requires him to spend thirty years of his life in prison as punishment. Allowing him to be euthanised not only feels suspiciously like a masked version of the death penalty but also appears to offer him an “easy way out” and a means to escape his punishment. If Belgium is against the death penalty, it must firmly remain so, and not permit what appears to be a subtle re-branding.
Of greater concern is the fact that Van Den Bleeken had applied for a transfer to a specialized Psychiatric Centre in The Netherlands to enable him to address his psychiatric condition, however this request was denied. This is concrete proof that euthanasia, as many critics have suggested, is beingused as an alternative to giving prisoners the care they need. We cannot allow thorough mental health treatment to be a less preferable option than killing the sufferer.
Even if we choose to temporarily ignore Van Den Bleeken’s mental ill health, the use of euthanasia in prisons is as pessimistic as it is disturbing. Euthanising prisoners who have committed horrific crimes denies them the opportunity for redemption. The feelings of guilt and hopelessness are an essential part of any rehabilitative process. In order to reform your life from one of violence, you have to develop a strong sense of empathy. When this begins to happen, prisoners can find themselves struggling to come to terms with their previous behaviour.
I have worked with young men, who have felt suicidally low as they slowly begin to realize the magnitude of the harm they have done. Yet these same young men, once they have overcome that period of darkness, have transformed in to wonderful, non-violent, productive citizens, many of whom now devote their lives to rehabilitating others.
I am certain, that many of these same young men, would, if they had known the opportunity was available, have asked to be euthanised. One young man I worked with spent five years feeling suicidal remorse for his crime, making several failed attempts, and he is only now recovering. Mental ill health and depression can take you to some very dark places. It is good support that should be offered in these cases, not the temptation of an easy death. Not surprisingly, Van Den Bleeken’s case has resulted in 15 more similar requests from other inmates since Monday.
Living in an increasingly business-led society, I worry too about the financial incentive behind allowing prisoners to be euthanised. Afterall, killing off long-term, expensive prisoners, is a sure way to save money. Maybe, I am being overly cynical. However, what I a sure of, is that when Van Den Bleeken is transferred from his prison in Bruges to a hospital to be euthanised,the price of human life will have become a little bit cheaper.
Rebecca Joy Novell is a Qualified Social Worker working with gangs in central London. She graduated from The University of Sheffield in 2012 with a Masters in Social Work. Rebecca has been involved with Youth Justice since 2008 in a variety of voluntary and paid roles and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Criminal Justice. She was elected to the Professional Assembly for The College of Social Work, is part of the Criminal Justice Reference Group for the British Association of Social Workers and regularly blogs for The Guardian’s Social Care Network. She is also the author of Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker. Her blog can be found at www.charitynovelll.wordpress.com.