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Hasty euthanasia? Don't believe everything 'The New Yorker' writes.

prof. Jan Bernheim and prof. Etienne Vermeersch
The New Yorker 22/06/2015 cover

According to The Death Treatment, a long essay of nine pages by Rachel Aviv in The New Yorker (circulation over a million!) mentally diseased Belgian patients are given hasty and careless euthanasia by ‘cowboy’ professors Distelmans and De Deyn. The Belgian quality daily De Morgen reported it (DM 17/6). The essay was disturbing for everyone, and discredited doctors and the Belgian model of end-of-life care. 

The New Yorker didn't publish the following response.


Professor Jan Bernheim and Professor Etienne Vermeersch

— Rachel Aviv introduced herself to us as an investigative reporter on the “history, development and philosophy of Belgian end-of-life care.” The Belgian model interested her as being a unique system where euthanasia is embedded in palliative care and aims to provide “integral end-of-life care.” We sent her many informative documents and she came to Belgium for several weeks to interview scientists and practitioners.

"The imperfections of end-of-life care are dwarfed by the reasonable assurance that Belgians will die according to their wishes after good palliative care."

Aviv had done her homework and asked pertinent questions. Only in passing did she ask what we thought of “the Tom Mortier case.” She learned a lot about, among many other things, "When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?", the subtitle of her article. [Added: She also attended a scholarly symposium on this subject where one of us (JB) acted as her interpreter.] But what you got [in her New Yorker article] was Tom Mortier’s crusade against the alleged illegitimate euthanasia of his mother, who after decades of treatment-refractory depression did not want to go on living.

We read [in Aviv’s article] that Mortier, who lives nearby to his mother, had a conflictual relationship with her and was estranged from her. When [several months before her death] she informed her children that a euthanasia procedure was underway, he did not answer. His sister, on the other hand, who was working in Africa as a human-rights lawyer, expressed her grief, but accepted her mother’s decision. The process lasted eight months, with numerous consultations with Distelmans, multiple psychiatric opinions and the intense involvement of a priest.

A right to empathy, compassion and therapy

Tom Mortier gives his version of the family saga. One of the traumas was the suicide of his father. If anything, Aviv’s story clearly shows that this is a multigenerational psychologically very disturbed family.

Mortier also enrols two similar cases where, like himself, one of the children resented having been excluded from the euthanasia procedure. The clinician among us (JB) knows case details that reassure him, but he, like the accused doctors Distelmans and De Deyn, cannot disclose them because of professional confidentiality. But one doesn’t need to know clinical details, or to be an expert to understand from Aviv’s text what Tom Mortier suffers from: pathological bereavement, a well-known clinical entity that occurs mostly in people who had a troubled and guilt-ridden relationship with the deceased. This is sad but should not obscure the wider picture: a large-scale Dutch study found less pathological mourning among the relatives of patients who died by euthanasia than after 'natural' death.

Tom Mortier deserves empathy, compassion and therapy. Instead, he chose self-treatment, with lawsuits to the European Court of Human Rights. We hope that by reaching millions of readers, including those of De Morgen [in his own country], his suffering is eased.

Euthanasia, like suicide, is in the first place individual, but can also have relational aspects. As there may be an element of aggression in a suicide, so it can also be in euthanasia. Clinicians like Distelmans and De Deyn are extra cautious when the family background is disturbed. They invite their patients to get their relatives involved as much as possible in the euthanasia process. Patients may reject family involvement, but need to know that their next of kin may suffer, and doctors must ascertain that this is not the goal of their patient’s euthanasia request.

We are not only concerned for Tom Mortier but also for millions of readers that are likely to have been misled and distressed [by Aviv’s alarming information]. Certainly, the Belgian model of end-of-life care has shortcomings. However, the imperfections of end-of-life care are dwarfed by the reasonable assurance for Belgians that they will get appropriate palliative care and will die according to their wishes. The Canadian province of Quebec has recently adopted a law on end-of-life care that largely emulates the Belgian model.

What if a Belgian journalist would set out to study the American organisation of—say—scientific research, and come up with the more sensational story of a few disgruntled scientists? She would be entitled to her personal views (e.g. aversion to science), but she should not disguise them under a misleading flag. Aviv’s discredit of doctors and the Belgian model was then just collateral damage. 

To paraphrase her subtitle: “when should a journalist be allowed to produce smoke and mirrors?” 


Jan Bernheim is Emeritus Professor of Medicine and researcher in the End-of-Life Care Research Group (Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Ghent University)

Etienne Vermeersch is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Bio-Ethics (Ghent University).

Joseph Ratzinger And The Nativity Legends

Etienne Vermeersch

We consider stories of miracles from other cultures to be fantasies, but when it comes to the Bible, even sensible people lose their critical faculties. Etienne Vermeersch

While conceiving Siddhartha (the young Buddha), his mother Maya saw in a dream that he entered her womb in the shape of a little white elephant. All of nature rejoiced: trees and plants blossomed, rivers stopped flowing, and musical instruments played without being touched. At the end of the pregnancy the child came forth painlessly from her right side; he could walk immediately and at each step a lotus flower appeared on the ground.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem [!] in Judea, as a child of a virgin from Nazareth [!], in the time of King Herod, Wise Men [magoi] from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the new born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship him.” Herod sent them to Bethlehem and then the star that had disappeared for a while [to render the visit to Herod inevitable, and so enable his murderous decree?] reappeared and guided them until it stood still above the place where the child was. (Matthew, 2)

No botanist ever wondered how those lotus flowers could grow under the little feet of Siddhartha. But Western astronomers did investigate whether the Wise Men might have seen a supernova, a comet, or a conjunction of planets, as if such a “star” could accompany human beings on a journey and then stand still over a particular place.

We consider stories of miracles from other cultures to be fantasies, but when it comes to the Bible, even sensible people lose their critical faculties. In 2012 (yes, in the twenty-first century) Joseph Ratzinger published—not as Pope Benedict XVI, whom he still was, but as a biblical scholar—Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the third and final volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series. One reads eagerly to find out what Ratzinger has to say about the star of Bethlehem, the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt. He could have kept it short (“those are legends”); instead, he devotes roughly a quarter of the book to their discussion. The relevant texts of Matthew (1 and 2) and Luke (1:5–80; 2:1–52) raise critical issues, and Ratzinger knows it. Yet he does not consider them as “meditation in narrative guise” (which is what the best Christian exegetes, including Catholic ones, think nowadays). No, Matthew gives us “factual history” (historische Geschehnisse), Ratzinger writes, that is interpreted theologically.

Twelve Years Old, Pregnant, and on a Journey

As an extreme illustration of this gullibility, let us consider the story of the Visitation (Luke 1:39–56). According to Jewish practice of the time, a girl’s betrothal was arranged around her twelfth birthday, and, hence, so was Mary’s. Nevertheless, immediately after the “annunciation by the angel,” she visits her niece Elizabeth in Judea. Imagine that! In a culture where women, not to mention unmarried women, were barely allowed to leave the house on their own, a pregnant twelve-year-old girl sets off, on foot, on a journey of more than one hundred kilometers through a dangerous region. And for what purpose? To pronounce the Magnificat—inspired by a biblical passage (1 Samuel 2:1–10), although in those days girls were poorly instructed concerning the Scriptures.

Another typical aspect of stories of this type: they confront readers who accept the possibility of miracles with so many anomalies as to induce total perplexity. Let us assume that an angel did announce the virgin conception; that thanks to a dream, Joseph believed this; that the birth did take place and was announced to the shepherds by a choir of angels; that a star did lead the Wise Men with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Bethlehem; that Jesus’s messianic character was emphasized in the temple by Simeon and Hannah; that in a dream Joseph was ordered to go to Galilee; and that “Mary kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Is it not strange, then, that Joseph and Mary, desperately seeking their wandered-off son, did not understand the words of the then–twelve-year-old Jesus when they finally found him in the temple (“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?,” Luke 2:50)? If all of these miracles did happen, then how can it be that Joseph and Mary had not realized during twelve years of parenting that their son was actually the Messiah, the son of God? According to Mark 3:21, Jesus’s family (hoi par’ autou) “went out to lay hold on him for they said ‘he is beside himself,’” and according to John 7:5, his own brothers did not believe in him. The angels, the shepherds, the prophets in the temple: Was it all to no avail? Had all of this completely escaped Mary’s mind, or had she never bothered to tell her other children?

An Inconspicuous Preacher from Galilee

Ratzinger also does not seem to realize that often a “mythopoetic” tendency arises around famous characters. This concerns the need to narrate myths and legends, either in order to shed light on the significance of these persons or to fulfill a deeply human longing for the miraculous. In many cultures, these kings, prophets, or saints perform miracles, and their births and deaths are accompanied by rare natural phenomena: earthquakes, new stars, comets, or solar or lunar eclipses. Their mothers may be nonnaturally impregnated by a god. Especially in relation to religion, this tendency seems to know no limits. Quite fittingly did Goethe say: “Das Wunder ist des Glaubens liebstes Kind” (Wonder is the dearest child of faith).

But such stories are also used to support particular doctrines. After their visions of the resurrected Jesus, his disciples considered him the Messiah. But how could an inconspicuous preacher from Galilee claim this title? Well, as a descendant of David, he could! Paul (around 56 CE) already knew the tradition that Jesus was born of the seed of David (ek spermatos Dauid) (Rom. 1:3). Later traditions prefer a virgin conception—which if true precludes this continuity of the male line. That is why Matthew and Luke (around 90 CE) try to emphasize Jesus’s kinship to David by situating the birth in David’s city of Bethlehem (in Judea). They do so in quite a bungling way, however. According to Matthew, Jesus’s parents lived in Bethlehem; the Wise Men met them in their house (elthontes eis tên oikian) (Matt. 2:11); and after their return from Egypt an angel has to encourage them to go to Galilee. According to Luke, they live in Nazareth, but Augustus’s census sent them to Bethlehem. A “census” in the city of the ancestors (Luke 2:4)—in the case of David, in the city of one’s ancestors as of about a thousand years earlier—is preposterous beyond imagination. There was indeed a “census” in Judea around 6 CE, but it affected only current residents and concerned property taxes.

Ratzinger’s imagination resolves this by assuming that Joseph owned real estate in Bethlehem. Why, then, was Jesus born in a stable? Luke and Matthew argue for the same thing (birth in Bethlehem) but with incompatible stories; this is proof of their utter incredibility. The same applies to the family trees that have “father” Joseph descended from David: they diverge nearly completely, both in the names and in the number of generations. In my opinion, even the linking of Jesus’s birth with Herod may have been determined by the desire to present him as the legitimate successor of this last great king of all Jews, the temple builder.

In short, Jesus was not born in Bethleh
em, and we do not know when he was born. The virgin conception arranged by God has no biological significance. A human being has two pairs of twenty-three chromosomes each, half from the mother and half from the father. If Jesus was a real human being, he would have received this second sequence either from his father or through (divine) genetic manipulation. In either case, these chromosomes (their DNA sequences) would have to code for the normal proteins. “Divine” chromosomes do not exist, for by definition the Christian God is immaterial. Because DNA was unknown in antiquity, a belief in virgin conception, however enigmatic, was not absurd. But in our own day?

Jesus’s Brothers

Furthermore, Ratzinger’s book is striking in what it omits. Whoever discusses Mary’s virginity cannot ignore that according to Roman Catholic doctrine, Mary remained “always a virgin” after Jesus’s birth (semper virgo). This dogma has no grounds in the New Testament; according to Matt. 12:46, Luke 8:19, John 2:12 and 7:3–5, and 1 Corinthians 9:5, Jesus had brothers. Mark (3:31 and 6:3) attests that he had sisters as well. In Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:55, the four brothers are referred to by name. One among them, James, played an important role in the early church and Paul (Gal. 1:19) calls him “the Lord’s brother” (ton adelphon tou kuriou). Moreover, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus stated that in 62 CE, James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,” was stoned.

The objections to these statements have been invalidated time and again. How odd that a pope does not find it fitting to address them.

This brings us to the question: Is Ratzinger foolish or ignorant? Neither, in my view. He bases his beliefs on an unwavering faith in the factual reliability of the Holy Scriptures, and if necessary, its truths must be defended in a shrewd way. Some Catholic exegetes solve the problems by distinguishing the “deeper message” from a time-bound myth or legend. Ratzinger is unable to do so, and odd as it may seem, some respect is still due him.

A second question regards the way in which our culture, traditionally drenched in Christianity, has to accommodate this “demythologizing.” In my opinion, we must distinguish between the strictly scientific question of truth and the myths, rites, and other cultural expressions that have grown up a tradition I consider intrinsically valuable. Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio do not lose any of their value in consequence of my remarks. “Peace on earth to all men of good will” remains a meaningful message, even if it is an incorrect translation of eirênê en anthrôpois eudokias.


Etienne Vermeersch

Free Inquiry

From: Volume 34, No. 1
December 2013 / January 2014

Free will: emotions and consciousness could contribute

Opinion - NATURE I volume 459 I 25 June 2009

SIR - In his Essay 'Is free will an illusion?' (Nature 459, 164–165; 2009), Martin Heisenberg suggests that belief in free will is supported by quantum events. However, the concept of free will may become confused if it is linked with an absence of determinism.

As an example, let us consider three schoolgirls, X, Y and Z, confronted with the proof of Pythagoras's theorem: X has a talent for mathematics and enjoys working out proofs; Y is weak in this domain and is unquestioning; Z has average ability but her decisions are capricious. The teacher instructs them to believe the theorem because it is correct. Y accepts it immediately, X first confirms for herself that the proof is valid, but Z (possibly influenced by a 'quantum event' in her brain) refuses to agree. Although the behaviour of X and Y is predictable and determined, given their personalities and abilities, Z's is not.

Heisenberg's suggestion would support the conclusion that only Z's decision was 'free'. But X could be judged as the one who made the really free (autonomous) decision. Y's decision is formally free, having been determined by her accepting nature, but it is undermined because it stems from the teacher's authority. Z's reaction is not free at all, because it was not determined by Z herself but by a random event in one or more of her brain cells.

In short, deciding freely does not imply a lack of determinism — rather, it is determined by central aspects of our personality: our long-term needs, the emotions accompanying their non-fulfilment, and our rational thinking about the means to satisfy those needs. Our decisions may therefore not be completely free, because they are not always exclusively determined by these central (core) factors. A person who stops smoking on rational grounds is freer than another who makes a decision to stop but fails to do so.

Quantum events have no relevance here: the question is whether we are influenced more by our core factors than by drives that are not rationally founded, such as habit, addiction or external pressure. Consciousness and the experience of positive or negative emotions could well play a part in our decisions: in my opinion, these are not epiphenomena — mere parallel events — but essential for bringing about determining factors that underlie our free will. This would not exclude a purely naturalistic explanation of the processes that we experience as consciousness.

Etienne Vermeersch

Nature volume 459, pages 1052–1053 (25 June 2009)

Professor Etienne Vermeersch On Revelation and Slavery in the Bible and in the Quran


Professor Etienne Vermeersch On Revelation and Slavery in the Bible and in the Quran.

Etienne Vermeersch (2 May 1934, Sint-MichielsBruges – 18 January 2019, Ghent) was a Belgian philosopher of science, moral philosopher, a leading skeptic, and an important opinion maker. He is one of the founding fathers of the abortion and euthanasia law in Belgium. He is also former Vice-Rector of Ghent University.

Vermeersch became an atheist in 1959 after being five years with the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Later he became a philosophical materialist. In the 1990s there was some commotion in the Belgian media when Vermeersch wrote a article entitled "Why the Christian God cannot exist" based on rational and ethical arguments.

In January 2008, Vermeersch was chosen by hundred prominent Flemings as the most influential intellectual of Flanders.

He died in a hospital in Ghent on 18 January 2019 by euthanasia after a long illness.

The ethical and historical background of the Belgian and Dutch laws on euthanasia

Etienne Vermeersch

 The ethical and historical background of the Belgian and Dutch laws on euthanasia 

Published in Kurt Pavlic & Burkhart Bromm (edd.), Neurologie und Philosophie zum Schmerz, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht, 2004.

Etienne Vermeersch

After a general introduction to ethics and the ethics of euthanasia, a survey is provided of the genesis of the euthanasia laws in Belgium and the Netherlands, with the intent to provide a clear idea of the concepts involved and of the rationale for their introduction.  The role of the Belgian Consultative Committee on Bioethics in the development of the ethical discussion in Belgium is explained as well as the essence of the profound ethical divide between the ‘coalition’ and the Christian Democrats. After a summary of the basic points of the Belgian law, a comparison is made between the Belgian and the Dutch laws and their ethical foundations.

The Belgian law on euthanasia - The historical and ethical background

The Belgian law on euthanasia - The historical and ethical background

Januari 2003 - ACTA CHIRURGICA BELGICA. 102(6). p.394-397

Author: Etienne Vermeersch
UGent publication: yes
UGent classification: A1
A survey is provided of the genesis of the euthanasia laws in Belgium and the Netherlands, with the intent to provide a clear idea of the concepts involved and of the rationale for their introduction. The role of the Belgian Consultative Committee on Bioethics in the development of the ethical discussion in Belgium is explained as well as the essence of the profound ethical divide between the 'coalition' and the Christian Democrats. After a summary of the basic points of the law, a comparison is made between the Belgian and the Dutch laws and their ethical foundations.

Vermeersch, Etienne. 2002. “The Belgian Law on Euthanasia - The Historical and Ethical Background.” Acta Chirurgica Belgica 102 (6): 394–397.


Vermeersch, E. (2002). The Belgian law on euthanasia - The historical and ethical background. ACTA CHIRURGICA BELGICA102(6), 394–397.



Vermeersch, E. The Belgian law on euthanasia - The historical and ethical background. ACTA CHIRURGICA BELGICA. Brussels: Acta Medical Belgica; 2002;102(6):394–7. 


Vermeersch, Etienne. “The Belgian Law on Euthanasia - The Historical and Ethical Background.” ACTA CHIRURGICA BELGICA 102.6 (2002): 394–397. Print.

A Flemish Rationalist: The Uncompromising Thinking of Etienne Vermeersch

Ludo Abicht
Etienne Vermeersch (1934-) (Photo by David Samyn).

Etienne Vermeersch, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ghent, retired in October 1997. Rather than marking the end of his professorship with the traditional liber amicorum, his colleagues Johan Braeckman and Hugo van den Enden arranged for the publication of thirteen of his most important articles in From Antigone to Dolly. Forty Years of Critical Thinking (Van Antigone tot Dolly. 40 jaar kritisch denken, 1997). This reader provides an extraordinary insight into Vermeersch' philosophy and ethical thinking. It was a felicitous decision on the part of his colleagues, for it meant that we were once again confronted with, or possibly introduced to, this philosopher's uncompromising and militant work.