07:50, May 31 56 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-31 07:50:06
Belgium investigates right-to-die group offering 'suicide powder'

Belgian prosecutors are to investigate a right-to-die group that has been offering advice on the use of a “suicide powder”.

The Last Will group, which has about 23,000 paying members with an average age of 69, was blocked by the Dutch authorities last year from helping approximately 1,000 people purchase the lethal drug but continues to offer advice on legal ways to obtain it.

The prosecutor’s office in east Flanders opened its investigation into the group’s activities ahead of a meeting of its 700-strong Belgian branch in the Flemish city of Ghent on 24 June.

Prosecutors told De Morgen newspaper the inquiry was at an early stage and that the initial focus was on the exact nature of the lethal substance being promoted.

Euthanasia by doctors is legal in both Belgium and the Netherlands when patients of sound mind are in “unbearable suffering” and have made repeated requests to die.

However, campaigners insist the need for the involvement of a doctor is an inhibition on those who wish to end their lives at a time of their own choosing.

In September 2017, Last Will announced it had discovered a drug of “last resort” that could be legally purchased and would deliver a peaceful death, a claim that has been challenged by some who have witnessed its use.

The group was advised last March it would be breaking Dutch law if it went ahead with plans to assist about 1,000 members to kill themselves through the provision of “material help”.

That advice followed a prosecutor’s inquiry into the death of a 19-year-old woman who had purchased the powder online. No criminal acts were found to have taken place by Last Will.

Belgian law is similar to that of the Netherlands in criminalising those who help the suicidal to purchase a lethal drug for the purpose of killing themselves.

Doctor-assisted euthanasia was legalised in 2002 in Belgium and the country further liberalised its laws in 2014 to become the only country in the world to allow euthanasia of children.

Three children, aged nine, 11 and 17, have since been euthanised who had been suffering from incurable conditions from which they were expected to die within a short period.

In the 19 years since doctors were given the right to legally kill patients, more than 10,000 people have been euthanised in Belgium. The total number of declarations of euthanasia was 2,357 in 2018, up 1.8% on the year before.

Gwendolyn Portzky, the director of the Flemish Centre for Suicide Prevention, said her organisation feared Last Will would encourage people to contemplate killing themselves.

A first criminal investigation under the reformed euthanasia laws was launched last year into three doctors from east Flanders involved in the death of a 38-year-old woman with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. Her family had filed a criminal complaint, alleging numerous “irregularities”.

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or emailjo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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