Euthanasia or Execution? – A Struggle for Control.
This Sunday, Belgium is, to all intents and purposes, going to carry out an execution. Capital punishment, outlawed in the EU, is effectively going to make a return to the Continent when Frank Van Den Bleeken, a sex offender, is killed at his own request. Ostensibly this is because he cannot bear the thought of spending the rest of life in jail or control his violent sexual urges – so he has asked to be euthanised. Astonishingly, the Belgian state has agreed.
In the early hours of January 1 1989, Van Den Bleeken, who was himself raped when he was 15, raped and killed a 19-year-old girl as she came home from a New Year’s Eve party. He was subsequently deemed insane and not criminally responsible and, after seven years on a prison psychiatric ward, released. Within weeks he attacked three more victims aged 11, 17, and 29 years old.
He first applied for euthanasia in 2011, saying that he had not been offered appropriate therapy. Since then a specialist centre has opened in Belgium, but he renewed his application for euthanasia none the less. Imagine a mentally ill cancer patient who asked for euthanasia while refusing a potentially effective treatment. All but the most ardent euthanasia advocates would demur in such a case. Yet Belgium has acquiesced.
There are three main problems with this. First, treatments for sexual offenders can be successful. Cognitive behavioural treatment is the most effective, and surgical and hormonal treatments also work well with a proportion of offenders.
Secondly, Van Den Bleeken has spent 30 years in jail. His desire to be killed, however, is only three years old. That means that for 27 years he wished to live – and his request to be given effective treatment in a Dutch centre supports this. The desire to die is never carved in stone – it changes with circumstances, with frame of mind, with mood. Nowhere is this more clear than in people who have demonstrated their absolute commitment to dying by jumping from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In a follow-up study – 26 years later – of these unwilling survivors, 90 per cent were either alive or had died of natural causes. These people had wanted to die as devoutly as Van Den Bleeken does but, having tried it once, did not try to get it right a second time.
But the third issue is the most important, and has to do with the nature of justice, which Van Den Bleeken is successfully seeking to pervert.
His crimes have blighted the lives of scores of people, and ended the life of one innocent girl. Her family does not want him to be killed – they wish to see him suffer in prison, and that is entirely their right.
But by ignoring their wishes and killing a physically healthy, relatively young man, there is a strong possibility that the Belgian state is playing into the killer’s hands. For the publicity and notoriety of this case has transformed it from being about Van Den Bleeken’s uncontrollable sexual urges into a battle for control between him and the authorities. It is entirely conceivable that he now sees himself as a sort of hero in combat with institutions who he feels have denied him proper treatment.
This struggle, peculiarly enough, may give his sad life some meaning, even if only for a few more days. His life’s last act will be played to his direction. We know well how people will do self-destructive things to give their life meaning, including killing themselves in suicide bombings. Strangely enough, some suicide bombers are motivated by what they, in their distorted perceptions, feel to be altruistic motives.
But part of the point of punishment is the denial of such control. It is for the state to decide Van Den Bleeken’s punishment, and yet it seems to be he who is pulling the strings. Since when did killers choose their own sentence?
If this dismal case changes course, however, both sides will end up losers. If Van Den Bleeken backs down and withdraws his request, it will represent a defeat for him. Such a defeat may be impossible for him to contemplate because the prospect of Sunday’s Pyrrhic victory represents the last residue of self-respect in a ruined life.
But Belgium also has put itself in a corner. It is important not to forget that Van Den Bleeken was previously declared insane – but clearly not insane enough for the authorities to regard him as incapable of making an informed decision about his own life and death. We do not know whether Belgian doctors have changed their diagnosis that he is insane, but if they have not, the ethical implications involved in killing him are devastating.
In most civilised countries, people who are suicidal can be detained in psychiatric hospital against their will because their suicidal impulses are not regarded as being rational choices. That Belgium can contemplate this bizarre course of action, and that the country’s doctors can contemplate executing it, is grotesque.
So the worries of both parties should be ignored. This case has now become a circus sideshow of the justice system. It should be prevented from reaching its appalling denouement.
If Belgium wishes to execute Van Den Bleeken, it should initiate the legislation to do so. If it does not, it should refuse to cave in to his battle for control over the shreds of his life, and ensure the public is protected while the best form of therapy is attempted.
This article was first published in the London Daily Telegraph on 6th January 2015