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Thu Jul 24 17:23:28 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: 'Up in the sky' as twins choose death

Bruno Waterfield | 16 January, 2013 00:07
Belgian twins asked to be killed by euthanasia rather than become blind. Their last words suggested they believed they would reunite in heaven Picture: THINKSTOCK

The deaf twins killed by legal euthanasia in Belgium were frightened of losing their independence in an institution and had "nothing to live for", their brother said this week.

The 45-year-old twins, identified as Marc and Eddy Verbessem, from the village of Putte, near the city of Mechelen, were both born deaf and asked to die after finding out they would also soon go blind.

Dirk Verbessem, 46, explained that his younger brothers had lived together for all their adult lives and could not communicate with the outside world.

"Their great fear was that they would no longer be able to see each other. That was unbearable for my brothers," he said.

The twins had spent their entire lives together, sharing a flat while both working as cobblers. They communicated only with special sign language understood by each other and their immediate family.

"They lived together, did their own cooking and cleaning. You could eat off the floor. Blindness would have made them completely dependent. They did not want to be in an institution," said Verbessem.

"I sometimes think, if they had their own wives and children, perhaps they would have had something to live for."

The brother and his parents, Mary and Remy, tried to stop the twins but they were eventually persuaded by them that their lives should be ended under Belgium's euthanasia laws.

After enlisting the support of their local doctor, it took the twins almost two years to find a medical institution to administer a lethal injection after being turned down by their local hospital.

Four weeks ago, dressed in new shoes and suits, Marc and Eddy bade farewell to their parents and brother at Brussels University Hospital in Jette.

"I tried to talk them out of it even at the last moment," said their brother.

"Together with my parents, I said goodbye. Marc and Eddy waved again at us. 'Up in the sky', they said. 'Up in the sky', we replied. And then it was over."

David Dufour, their local doctor, said that on top of congenital deafness and approaching blindness caused by a genetically caused form of glaucoma, the twins had other severe medical problems.

"All that together made life unbearable. I have been very surprised there is so much interest and debate about this," he said.

Dufour said the Verbessem family had overcome their opposition to the idea of euthanasia to help the twins make their case to doctors.

"I have boundless respect for their parents and brother," he said.

"Their family gave them the best but hardest gift."

Under Belgian law, euthanasia is allowed if a patient is able to make their wishes clear and a doctor judges they are suffering unbearable pain.

The Verbessem case is unusual because neither of the men was terminally ill or in pain.

Professor Wim Distelmans, the doctor who took the decision that the twins could be euthanased, defended his actions.

"It's the first time in the world that a 'double euthanasia' has been performed on brothers," he said.

"There was certainly unbearable psychological suffering for them. It is always possible to stretch the interpretation of that. One doctor will evaluate differently than the other."

Last month, Belgium's government announced plans to amend the law to allow the euthanasia of children and Alzheimer's sufferers. If passed, the new law will allow euthanasia to be "extended to minors if they are capable of discernment or affected by an incurable illness or suffering that we cannot alleviate".

Chris Gastmans, professor of medical ethics at the Catholic University of Leuven, expressed fear over the wider implications for the welfare of disabled people after the assisted suicide.

"In a society as wealthy as ours, we must find another, caring way to deal with human frailty," he said. - ©TheDaily Telegraph

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