Marc and Eddy Verbessem the two deaf twins killed by legal euthanasia in Belgium had their first requests to die refused in their local hospital.
The two men, 45, from the village of Putte, near the city of Mechelen outside Brussels, were both born deaf and sought euthanasia after finding that they would also soon go blind.
But their local hospital refused to end their lives by lethal injection because doctors there did not accept that the twins were suffering unbearable pain, the criteria for legal euthanasia under Belgian law.
“There is a law but that is clearly open to various interpretations. If any blind or deaf are allowed to euthanise, we are far from home. I do not think this was what the legislation meant by ‘unbearable suffering’,” doctors at the first hospital said.
Eventually the two brothers found doctors at Brussels University Hospital in Jette who accepted their argument that they were unable to bear the thought of not being able to see each other again.
Doctors “euthanised” the two men by lethal injection on December 14 last year and because the operation took place outside their local hospital each man was billed 180 euros for the cost of transporting their bodies home.
Neighbours and friends in the village of Putte said that the twins had to overcome strong resistance from their elderly parents to their demands for a mercy killing.
Dirk Verbessem, the older brother of Marc and Eddy, had defended the decision of his brothers to die.
“Many will wonder why my brothers have opted for euthanasia because there are plenty of deaf and blind that have a ‘normal’ life,” he said. “But my brothers trudged from one disease to another. They were really worn out.”
Mr Verbessem said his twin brothers were going blind with glaucoma and that Eddy had a deformed spine and had recently undergone heart surgery.
“The great fear that they would no longer be able to see, or hear, each other and the family was for my brothers unbearable,” he said.
Professor Wim Distelmans, the doctor that took the decision to “euthanise” the twins has also defended the decision. “It is certain that the twins meet all the conditions for euthanasia,” he said.
Chris Gastmans, professor of medical ethics at the Catholic University of Leuven, has criticised the decision and has concerns over the wider implications for the welfare of disabled people.
“I will not enter the legal discussion but I am left with questions,” he said.
“Is this the only humane response that we can offer in such situations? I feel uncomfortable here as ethicist. Today it seems that euthanasia is the only right way to end life. And I think that’s not a good thing. In a society as wealthy as ours, we must find another, caring way to deal with human frailty.”
Under Belgian law, euthanasia is allowed if the person wishing to end his life is able to make their wishes clear and a doctor judges that he is suffering unbearable pain.
The case is unusual because neither of the men was terminally ill nor suffering physical pain.
Just days after the twins were killed by doctors, Belgium’s ruling Socialists tabled a new legal amendment that will allow the euthanasia of children and Alzheimer’s sufferers.
If passed later this year, 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”.
In 2002, Belgium was the second country in the world after the Netherlands to legalise euthanasia in but it currently only applies to people over the age of 18.
Some 1,133 cases of euthanasia – mostly for terminal cancer – were recorded in 2011, according to the last official figures.
In 2011, it emerged that people killed by euthanasia in Belgium are having their organs harvested for transplant surgery.