Last week, the Belgian Senate heard evidence from medical experts as legislators began the process of considering an amendment on the country’s euthanasia law to cover minors. 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 can make a voluntary and written request to die if they are in a “hopeless medical situation.” In Belgium, 1,133 cases of euthanasia were recorded in 2011, about one percent of all deaths in the country, according to official figures.
One expert testified to Belgium’s upper house of Parliament that the euthanization of minors is already taking place in the country. Dr. Dominque Diarent, the head of the intensive care unit at the Queen Fabiola Children’s University Hospital, asserts that the law should be changed– saying that physicians have been dealing with this issue for years and, faced with this reality, “doctors need a legal framework” to take away fear of possible criminal persecution.
Dr. Diarent contends that this change is necessary, not only for the doctors, but the minor patients that they treating. “Some children need to have an answer to their demands because they are suffering so much. They are asking for this.”
Phillippe Mahoux, a Socialist Party senator, helped to draft the original 2002 euthanasia law. He is now lobbying for the expansion of the law. “When we debated the euthanasia law ten years ago, many of us said that those children and adolescents who are living in difficult circumstance with regards to death and illness, (we said) that they displayed greater lucidity (on this issue) than most adults,” said Mahoux. The senator now proposes that children of any age, with a serious and incurable disease and a sound mind, should have the same rights to euthanasia as adults.
The proposed amendment comes on the heels of several high profile euthanasia cases in Belgium. Earlier this year it was reported that a pair of identical twins who were deaf and terrified over the prospect of losing their vision were euthanized together. This case was considered unusual as neither sibling was in any pain nor were they suffering from a terminal illness.
Another report which raised concerns from the public involved the recent euthanization of Anna G., a 44-year-old Belgian woman, was suffering from tremendous psychological distress. Not only had she been battling anorexia nervosa but she had been sexually abused by her former psychiatrist. As early as 2007, Anna expressed the desire to commit suicide. She was thrown into considerably more distress when the doctor who had victimized her received no punishment, despite his admission of guilt. She then decided to exercise her option to be euthanized.
There is an opposition to the expansion of the euthanasia law in the country. Professor Chris Van Geet of Leuven University testified before Parliament that the proposed changes to the law pose “an enormous ethical problem.” Additionally, the Belgian Catholic Bishops Conference has spoken out against euthanasia for years and has been vocal against its expansion. The Catholic Church has advocated for a “palliative care approach.”
Euthanasia is a real and definite ethical problem. The expansion of the law to include minors is even more worrisome as children, in an extraordinarily vulnerable position, and their parents must face the decision to be killed. The prospect is even darker when one considers the possibility of the coercion that children may be susceptible to. It must be hoped that the decision to properly treat patients, both children and adults, and allow them to live their lives, however long they last, to the fullest wins over the decision to end their lives.