Belgian Child Euthanasia Bill Sparks Debate

The debate over euthanasia usually revolves around terminally ill adults.  Adults are presumed to be able to make rational, informed decisions about their quality of life and the possibility of ending it.  But in Belgium, this assumption of rationality is being considered in children.

The Belgian Senate approved a bill in December that would allow euthanasia to be administered to a child of any age who repeatedly requests that his or her life be ended.  The bill increases the scope of an existing euthanasia law passed in 2002, which requires that an adult person (1) is competent and conscious, (2) is repeatedly making the request to die, and (3) is suffering unbearably – physically or mentally – as a result of a serious and incurable disorder.  (BBC)  The bill passed in the Belgian Senate would extend the same criteria to children of any age.  There are further restrictions that would apply specifically to children, however:  under the bill, the child must understand what euthanasia is, and their parents and medical teams have to approve the child’s decision to die.  The child must also possess the “capacity of discernment” (a term left undefined in the bill) for his or her request to be considered.  (NYTimes)  The bill next goes to the House of Representatives, where it will likely be enacted.  (USA Today)

In support of the bill, sixteen leading Belgian pediatricians wrote a letter demanding the expansion of euthanasia rights to terminally ill children. They, along with other proponents of the bill, say that giving euthanasia options to terminally ill children is an act of compassion.  Their reasoning is that both children and adults suffer from the same terminal illnesses, so the right to die should equally extend to both groups.  Supporters also claim that terminally ill children are more psychologically mature than their healthy counterparts, which gives them the mental capacity necessary to make such an important decision.  (Deutsche Welle)

Opponents of the bill include religious communities and some bioethics experts.  The Catholic Church has come out in opposition of the bill (USA Today), and an alliance of Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, and Christian Orthodox representatives have published an open letter in opposition.  Carine Brochiner of the European Institute of Bioethics in Brussels equates the right to euthanasia with other rights in Belgium unavailable to children:  “A child cannot buy a house in Belgium.  A child cannot buy alcohol in Belgium.  And this law would allow a child to be killed.  And that is a real problem.”  (Deutsche Welle)  Private citizens are also voicing their opposition. Steve Forbes, the chairman of Forbes Media, published an article calling the practice “HitlerCare.”  (NewsMax)

If the bill passes, Belgium will become the first country to allow euthanasia in children without age restrictions.  Its neighbor to the north, the Netherlands, has long been labeled as the European country most supportive of euthanasia.  The Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia in 2001, and before euthanasia was legalized, the practice was tolerated by government officials.  But even the Netherlands does not allow euthanasia for children under the age of twelve.  (Washington Times)

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