Belgian court ponders: Was it murder or an act of mercy? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 29.02.2016
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Belgian court ponders: Was it murder or an act of mercy?

Did Rita Henkinet murder her severely-handicapped children? Or did she end their suffering? A trial in Belgium puts a spotlight on the issue of euthanasia, and the suffering of parents of mentally-handicapped children.

It was the night of March 1, two years ago, when Rita Henkinet, a former nurse, gave a strong dose of tranquilizers to both her children, Arnaud, age 24, and Audrey, age 26, and then proceeded to suffocate them.

Now, Rita Henkinet is on trial in the Belgian city of Liege for having murdered her children, both of whom suffered from a genetic disorder associated with both mental and physical handicaps.

Her brother Benoit is charged with having supported Rita Henkinet in committing the crime.

An act of love?

Taking the lives of her children was an act of love, Rita Henkinet told the investigating magistrate later.

"I didn't want to get rid of my children," Rita Henkinet told the Belgian tv station RTL, "I miss them."

Earlier in the trial, Henkinet justified herself saying her children were suffering, and that their health was deteriorating.

But Audrey participated in activities at the mental institution in which she and her brother Arnaud lived, and he knew how to write, and do ceramics, replied the judge presiding over the case.

'Not a case of euthanasia'

"This case is not at all within the realm of Belgian laws on euthanasia," says Francois Damas, who is a member of the country's euthanasia commission.

Belgium legalized assisted suicide, or euthanasia, in 2002, and was the second state in the European Union to do so, after the Netherlands.

"The Belgian law stipulates that someone has to express, out of his own free will, the explicit and repeated wish that a physician euthanize him or her. This wish cannot be expressed for another person," Damas told Deutsche Welle.

"It is the same with regard to underaged children," says Damas. "Children who suffer from a terminal illness, and are considered to be suffering beyond medical help may be euthanized, but they must be able to request that themselves."

Two years ago, Belgium became the first country in the world to remove any age restrictions on euthanasia.

A woman in need of being in control

On Monday, the trial started into its second week, with psychologists giving testimony on the defendants' personality and their family dynamics.

They described the family as an interdependent system, to which the births of the handicapped children had dealt severe blows.

One expert psychologist described Rita Henkinet as a woman in constant need of control. Another psychologist stressed how strongly Henkinet identified with her children.

In January 2014, Henkinet told Le Soir newspaper that she was feeling "de-parentalized" by the mental institution in which her children were treated.

"Obsessive compulsive people try to control everything," Ariane Bazan, a clinical psychologist at the Free University of Brussels (Universite Libre de Bruxelles, ULB) who is herself not an expert witness at the trial, told DW. "Apparently, it was difficult for Rita Henkinet to relinquish control over the details of her children's lives to the institution."

'Extremely stressed'

In her interview with RTL, Henkinet explained that taking care of her children demanded full-time attention, and that that put her under enormous pressure.

At the time of their deaths, Arnaud and Audrey lived in a mental institution, but from time to time spent weekends at their mother's house.

"You have to take into account that for more than twenty years, Rita Henkinet was more or less alone in trying to find the best possible solution for her children," defense counsel Alexandre Wilmotte told RTL television, "and I think it is understandable that she was extremely stressed and worn-out because of that."

After Rita Henkinet killed her children during the night of March 1, 2013, she tried to kill herself - an attempted suicide doctors have said was real and not a 'mere call for help.'

The trial is expected to continue throughout this week. But whatever the verdict will be, it will not change the fact that in Belgium, the notion of handicapped people and euthanasia will never go together, says Francois Damas, who heads up the ethics committee at Citadelle hospital in Liege.

"The law could never be extended to include euthanasia on handicapped people," he says, "because the law's fundamental idea is that it requires a clear and autonomous decision by the patient. If a patient is mentally handicapped in such a way that he or she cannot make and express such a clear and unequivocal decision for himself, there cannot be euthanasia."

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