Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Euthanasia & sexual abusers

Frank van der Bleeken is an imprisoned murderer and multiple rapist residing in Belgium. He he committed his sexual offences against young women in Antwerp (Belguim) during the 1980’s. Mr. van der Bleeken was sentenced to life imprisonment and has already been in prison for over 30 year’s (International Business Times). Recently, Mr. van der Bleeken successfully petitioned the Belgian government to be given allowed the right to die via assisted suicide through their euthanasia law (Belgian Act of Euthanasia, 2002; Cohen –Almagor, 2009). Euthanasia is controversial in and of itself, regardless of its use by offenders, with disagreements within and between countries about its legality as well as morality (The Lancet, Medical News Today and politics.co.uk). Mr. van der Bleeken’s argument for euthanasia is based upon his belief that he was not receiving adequate treatment for resolve his sexually abuse impulses (which is an issue in Belgium - The Globe and Mail), that these sexual impulses where not diminishing and that he was suffering significant psychological as well as emotional trauma as a result of this (The Sydney Morning Herald). In his application Mr. van der Bleeken was supported by medical professionals who supported his claim that his condition was not improving and that treatment was having no impact (The Sydney Morning Herald).


The decision by Mr. van ver Bleeken’s to seek euthanasia as a response to his sexually abusive raises a whole host of questions as well as issues for sex offender treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration:


-       Mr. van der Bleeken’s argument is that his sexual impulses are innate and causing him severe psychological as well as emotional trauma, as a consequence he is asking to be euthanatized so that his pain can be abated. In saying this he is placing his sexual cognitions and motivations in the same arena as other prolonged and depilating illnesses, such as MS, which euthanasia is used for. This reframes sexual abuse, and the related motivations, into a whole new biological light. Although, we recognise that there may innate drives that can motivate some sexual offenders this is not the case for all sexual offenders; sexual offending is heterogeneous in nature. Mr. van der Bleeken’s argument for euthanasia as well as being reductionist also works to cloud the fact that there are social aspects to sexual abuse. So even though he may suffer from cognitions and drives that are emotionally and psychologically based, so to do a lot of other individuals (i.e., people with severe personality disorders, schizophrenia, depression, etc) for whom euthanasia would not be considered. So why was euthanasia allowed for Mr. van der Bleeken? As a consequence of the nature of his offences, or his level of dangerousness, or his risk level? These seem difficult to justify, especially in a country that does not have the death penalty.


-       In this case the argument is that treatment has not help Mr. van der Bleeken and that another response is needed. Research has indicated that treatment works for different individuals in different ways at different times (Beech et al, 2009; Baim & Guthrie, 2014); it is not a homogenous solution. However, the suggestion that death is the only alternative solution to a failure in treatment is a very worrying precedent to set and feeds into the longstanding, although often rebuked, myth that nothing works with sex offenders so why bother. As professionals we recognise that sexually abusive tendencies and cognitions are incurable, and therefore that is not what treatment is really about; treatment is really about giving people the skills to reduce and manage these tendencies. Therefore it is a misnomer to say that the inability of treatment to cure a sex offender means that we must move to the most radical solution, death. This is why we have some individuals who are civilly commitment for their own as well as society’s benefit, which is not to say that everyone who is civilly committed is always going to be high risk forever but instead to say that those most resistant to change and in need of the most support have the appropriate responses available to them.


-      This case also raises the issue of prisoner rights, so should Mr. Van der Bleeken be allowed to pursue this course of action when he is being held by the state for a crime(s) that he committed? Part of the role of prison is to remove an individual’s freedom and right for self-determination. However, prisoners do have health related rights and therefore are Mr. Van der Bleeken’s concerns over his emotional and psychological state congruent with prisoners suffering for physical ailments for would euthanasia would be more readily accepted? Or is it an attempt to downplay his responsibility for the sexual assaults as he cannot control himself and his urges are beyond treatment? So in arguing for assisted suicide Mr. van der Bleeken could be seen as bypassing the criminal justice system as the Belgium government do not think that the death penalty is not an appropriate response to his offences. However this goes beyond the offender and the state to the victim, with the parents of Mr. van der Bleeken’s victims not wanting him to have access to assisted suicide instead arguing that he needs to serve out his sentence and be punished for his offences (Daily Mail). Consequentiality, the Belgian government’s recommendation that Mr. van der Bleeken can be allowed euthanasia means that the families of his victims feel betrayed by the criminal justice system and that they are not getting the justice that they were originally promised.


The Frank van der Bleeken case raises a lot of questions about the viability and impact of sex offender treatment (The Globe and Mail). The main issue seems to be whether euthanasia is appropriate response if sex offender treatment is not seen as successful by the client. This could have serious implications for the view of treatment from the judiciary as well as from the public, because if sex offenders feel that they deserve the death penalty and that they cannot be cured is this probable cause to invoke it?




Beech, A.R., Craig, L.A., & Browne, K.D. (2009). Assessment and treatment of sex offenders: A handbook. Chichester: Wiley.


Baim, C., & Guthrie,L.  (2014). Changing Offending Behaviour. London: Jessica Kingsley.


Cohen –Almagor, R. (2009). Belgian euthanasia law: a critical analysis. Journal of Medical Ethics, 35, 436-439



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