Belgian euthanasia: children given right to choose to die

Feb 14, 2014

Poll says that 75 per cent of Belgians support new law that allows euthanasia for sick children

Getty Images

THE Belgian parliament voted to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill children yesterday, by 88 votes to 44 with 12 abstentions.

The bill will allow children deemed to be in significant pain with no hope of recovery to choose to die, with the permission of their parents.

When it is signed into law by the king, Belgium will become the only country in the world not to have an age restriction on euthanasia.

The controversial vote has triggered passionate debate around the world, with experts divided on whether children should be allowed to choose to die.

When is child euthanasia appropriate?

Some paediatricians argue that euthanasia should be made available to children in cases where all treatments have been exhausted, and it is impossible to relieve the child of pain, the BBC reports.

"Rarely - but it happens - there are children we try to treat but there is nothing we can do to make them better," said Dr Gerlant van Berlaer, a paediatrician at UZ Hospital Brussels. "Those children must have the right to decide about their own end of life."

Dr Van Berlaer was one of 17 physicians who signed a petition urging politicians to pass the bill.

"We are not playing God - these are lives that will end anyway," Van Berlaer argued. "Their natural end might be miserable or very painful or horrifying, and they might have seen a lot of friends in institutions or hospitals die of the same disease. And if they say, 'I don't want to die this way, I want to do it my way,' and that is the only thing we can do for them as doctors, I think we should be able to do it."

Who argued against the bill?

Opponents of the bill argue that children are not capable of making such significant decisions.

"Minors decide more impulsively than adults and they don't have the same perspective of short-term and long-term decisions," said Els van Hoof, a Christian Democratic and Flemish party member. "It's too high a risk to leave this decision in the hands of children," she added.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders have spoken out against the bill.

"We are opening a door that nobody will be able to close," said Andre Leonard, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and chairman of the Episcopal Conference of Belgium, quoted in USA Today. "There is a risk of very serious consequences in the long term for society and the meaning we give to life, death and the freedom of human beings."

Last week a coalition of 160 doctors signed an open letter against the bill, arguing that modern medicine was capable of adequately dealing with almost all pain.

But polls before the vote indicated that 75 per cent of Belgians support extending the right to die to minors.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Disqus - noscript

All I can say is - I wish a very painful death on anybody to tries to stop this right - nobody is saying that the child is the only person who decides - the parents are included in the decision !! Time for some real humanity in our dealings with this difficult area of when to go - I want to be able to choose myself - I am a very contented 74 yrs old, but do not EVER want to be in that awful situation of being wired up just to keep me alive any time after this point - let me decide when to go, the God person, if there, will know and understand my decision - I am more worried about the idea of reincarnation and being forced to do this all over again !!!

Nobody is saying they HAVE to accept euthanasia, just that it should be available as a last option. Would you rather have the situation where people have to do this kind of thing illegally (as they most certainly do now) or would you have it controlled and out in the open. Illegality brings with it all kinds of risks, because the people who practice it are, by definition, lawbreakers, and therefore doing it for something other than altruism (like personal profit?). Get it out in the open, it can be managed and controlled, and advances in medical techniques (like making it more gentle and painless) can benefit all.

This new Belgian law permits unbearable suffering children to end their painful life, BUT, on condition that the patients are very well aware of their wish and the consequences, AND never without explicit agreement and permission of their parents and the attending doctors. To be quite clear: parents together with doctors!

Besides, Belgium is not the first country to vote this legislation. The Netherlands have it since 2002, for children older than 12 years. Since the first year of practice, exactly five unbearable suffering children got the permission to end their life in the Netherlands. Five in over 10 years! Not really a genocide, is it? In Belgium there is no arbitrary age: often sick children have more sense of reality than grown-ups. But again, they ought to be fully aware and conscious of all aspects concerning their wish. And they can’t decide on their own.

Media headlines such as “Belgians kill their sick children” are absolutely out of order, as those who utter them should very well know, unless they really are stupid or frankly unfair. But scandalous headlines make scandalous profits, don’t they?

What makes my blood boil, are certain hysteric and hypocritical voices from countries like the USA. A nation where legal and illegal guns kill children under 12 (!) almost every other day (Check FBI, Uniform Crime Reports) and where millions of children have no health care at all because their working parents can’t afford the insurance premiums, has no moral right to judge other countries on this topic. Of course religious institutes as the Vatican are indignant about the Belgian law, but where were their loud voices when the criminal facts about massive children abuse by their priests came to light? Where were the Muslim voices when Ayatollah Khomeini sent thousands of Iranian Basij-children (twelve year old boys) into the mine fields during the war between Iran and Iraq in the eighties, in order to clear the way for his army? Sorry, I don’t accept any moral reprimand from those sources.

William, I heard a BBC news report on this topic the other night and was surprised how small-minded the otherwise intelligent interviewer was - that when it came to dealing with end of life issues, the interviewer had a "blind spot" she couldn't over come. She pretty much asked the doctor - have you killed anyone yet today? And the issue of the child who was in unfathomable pain - did they actually have the maturity, the brain development, to make such a decision: the child is terminal - every day is hell on earth - no empathy whatsoever - blinded by a taboo.

Thanks for your reaction, arusticat. I didn’t see the interview you are referring to, but I can well imagine the abhorrence of the interviewer towards “ending children’s life”. A quite normal and perfectly human reaction. But as you put it yourself, in a situation of a child that suffers terribly and that hasn’t any option left to heal or even to live on in a relatively comfortable condition, one should take into account what the child really wants for itself, together with its parents and the specialists that are treating the child. Luckily, thanks to our refined Western health system, those situations occur very rarely. The “comforting fact” is that in those exceptional cases the decision to help ending the life of a child in such pains will be legally supported. Besides, we must be realistic: who really believes that helping deadly sick patients to die in a serene and dignified way has never been done before, with “illegal” permission of the patient, the love ones and the doctors? And the most terrifying question of all, which each of us, should consider: what would you, as a parent, prefer when your suffering child is begging you to let it die? Would you keep on refusing that heart breaking appeal on your own “moral” grounds? Religious people will tell us they obey to God’s law. Is it also God’s law that innocent sick children should suffer endlessly? For myself, the answer is clear: such a God is a cruel God and is not worthy of my respect. Life is sacred, they say. Well yes, life is sacred, but not eternally. Between birth and death we are entitled to living as happily as we can, but in as much harmony and empathy with our fellow men as is possible. Love is not only about preserving life, love is also about releasing.