Belgian twins legally euthanized

Late last year identical Belgian twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem, 45, who were born deaf and with spinal problems, were diagnosed with incoming blindness. Upon this diagnosis, they decided that their lives were not worth living anymore, and they were legally euthanized Dec. 14.

This case subsequently caused an uproar in the world of medical ethics. Physician assisted suicide, already a touchy subject, is usually reserved in rare cases for the terminally ill, but the Verbessem twins were not diagnosed with a terminal disease.

There are many sects of society staunchly opposed to euthanasia and medically-approved suicide. Many object due to religious reasons, while others object because they believe it goes against a physician’s traditional duties.

The Hippocratic Oath, one of the most historically common physicians’ oaths, states that, “most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death … this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”

Some would even go so far as to suggest that making assisted suicide more acceptable would lead to a slippery slope whereby there would be social acceptance of euthanasia of the disabled, elderly or other marginalized demographics. The National Federation of the Blind expressed this concern in a statement about the 45-year-old Verbessems.

“This disturbing news [of the twins] is a stark example of the common, and in this case tragic, misunderstanding of disability and its consequences,” the statement said. “Adjustment to any disability is difficult … but it has been known that these challenges can be met. That these men wanted to die is tragic; that the state sanctioned and aided their suicide is frightening.”

DePaul professor Howard Steeves believes society has more control over the consequences of legalized euthanasia.

“It seems like the slippery slope argument can be stupid, as it basically says we don’t have control,” said Steeves. “The slope is only slippery if we make it. One thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another.”

The case highlights a series of bigger changes that are being pushed throughout Belgium. Days after the death of the Verbessem twins, the ruling party proposed a new amendment that would allow the euthanasia of minors or patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, provided that they are deemed capable of discerning the levity of their situation.

As of today, there have been 5,500 cases of in Belgium since they legalized it in 2002, although it must be noted that not one of these cases had been referred to the police.

It is at least clear, however, that society may not be ready for widespread approval of assisted suicide. The power to legalize assisted suicide is handled on a state-by-state level. Oregon, Washington and Montana currently allow euthanasia on a very limited basis. Massachusetts put the issue on the ballot in the 2012 general elections, but the “Massachusetts Death with Dignity Initiative” was shot down.

“One of the questions people should be asking is ‘what is life?'” said Steeves. “Sometimes there might not be scientific answers. Life may be not just having a heart pumping, but to flourish. What should happen when you can’t flourish?”

According to reports, the Verbessem twins chose suicide because they would no longer be able to effectively interact with each other.

“As a twin myself, I can connect with the story of the twins,” said Danielle Meijer, DePaul pyschology professor. “Especially with identical twins, you are psychologically going to have your identities interwoven. It’s almost as if there’s no way to be you without the other. The twins defined themselves by each other.”

As David Dufor, one of the physicians involved in the twins’ care, offered his own views on the quality of life.

“Although they were not terminal, there was still unbearable suffering, (both psychologically) and physically,” said Dufor. “They had been begging for months to die.”

According to a report by their brother Dick Verbessem, “A weight fell off their shoulders” when they were approved for euthanasia.

However, even if society were to come to a consensus approving the choice of the twins, it is unlikely that there will soon be a clear-cut decision approving or disproving physician-assisted suicide.

“Hardline laws can be decontextualized, so decisions ideally should be made on a case by case basis,” said Meijer. “It’s hard to judge (the twins) morally either way, but it is sad since they may have still maintained a life. There are many cases where there may still be possibility for happiness. That should trump suicide.”

Steeves believes the discussion is multi-faceted.

“To focus on one standpoint or question is to miss the entire point,” he said. “It seems ethics is a tricky discussion no one truly wants to have.”