On Thursday, the Belgian Parliament voted by a significant majority to legalize euthanasia for terminally ill children. The new legislation will extend the existing euthanasia law in Belgium which decriminalized the practice for adults. The law will also legalize the practice to adults suffering from dementia.
The measure, which took place in Belgium’s Upper House of Parliament, passed by a vote of 50-17, with 4 members of Parliament abstaining. Of the 17 who voted against the bill, the majority were from the Christian Democrat Party, a traditionally Catholic political party. The bill will now go to the House of Representatives for final approval before going to the King to be signed into law. It is expected to go through.
As a result to the extension of the euthanasia law, euthanasia will now be a legal option for children who have parental consent and are afflicted with “constant and unbearable physical suffering.” According to the legislation the child in question must also have a “capacity of discernment.” Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002 but has, since its enactment, been prohibited for patients under 18. According to the current law, adults who suffer from a serious and incurable condition could make a voluntary and written request to die if they were in a “hopeless medical situation.”
While euthanasia is legal in a handful of countries in Europe, it is the first country in the world to lift all age restrictions to euthanasia laws. In 2012, Belgium recorded 1432 cases of euthanasia– which marked a 25% increase from 2011.
Philippe Mahoux, a Socialist senator and enthusiastic sponsor of the legislation, described the new law as the “ultimate gesture of humanity.” Mr. Mahoux said in an interview before the vote that euthanasia for terminally ill children was already practiced on occasion in some Belgian hospitals and that the law would not lead to a surge in medically accelerated death among sick children but would save doctors from potential criminal prosecution.
Despite the majority support the legislation found in Parliament, there are those in Belgium who strongly oppose the extension of the law. Testifying in front of Parliament in February, Professor Chris Van Geet of Leuven University asserted that the proposed law poses “an enormous ethical problem.” Following the vote on Thursday, Tom Mortier, a lecturer in Chemistry Leuven University and an anti-euthanasia campaigner, called the vote “insanity.” Professor Mortier’s own mother, who was suffering from chronic depression at the time, was euthanized in 2012.
“Her departure wasn’t the serene family gathering, full of peace and reconciliation, which euthanasia supporters gush about,” Mortier stated. “The University Hospital in Brussels phoned my wife the day after.”
The leaders of Belgium’s Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities put out a joint statement in opposition to the vote’s outcome. The statement read, “We mark out opposition to this extension and express our trepidation in the face of the risk of a growing trivialization of such a grave reality.”
Euthanasia is a very real violation of medical ethics and step in the completely wrong direction. The expansion of the law to include minors is disturbing as these sick children, who are in an extremely vulnerable position, may now face mounting pressure to assent to euthanasia for the sake of their family or to relieve their own pain, despite the fact that they may not fully understand the irreversible nature of death. The prospect is even darker when one considers the possibility of the coercion that children may be susceptible to. Research conducted by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 2010 found that 32% of euthanasia deaths in the Flanders region of Belgium were conducted without explicit request.
This news out of Belgium is tragic. Doctors should not be called upon to end life- it is their mission to preserve it. The fact that children will now be subject to this treatment is nothing short of atrocious. Children who are terminally ill must be treated with compassion. Pallative care is essential. Euthanasia is not. Senator Mahoux calls the new law the “ultimate expression of humanity.” However, his understanding of humanity is deeply flawed. Belgian lawmakers seem to have forgotten the humanity of their country’s children and, by voting for this legislation, have lost some of their own.