Irresponsible or humane? Belgians split over child euthanasia bill approval

Irresponsible or humane? Belgians split over child euthanasia bill approval
Belgium's Senate has supported the bill allowing to extend mercy-killing to children found to be terminally-ill. Opponents of the proposed measure argue that what cries out to be taken for an "act of compassion" is in fact an "act of irresponsibility".

On Thursday, the upper house voted 50 in favor of the proposed measure, with only 17 against it. The bill allows terminally-ill children to ask for euthanasia on the grounds that they are going through a lot of pain, with no treatment available to soothe the suffering. The request has to be agreed by the patient's doctor and approved by the child's parents. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders strongly oppose the measure.

"In a sort of collective delusion, our society increasingly glorifies assisted death as progress of civilization and [the] pinnacle of humanity. Let us defend a viewpoint fundamentally opposed," the Community of Sant’Egidio, which includes over 60,000 Christian lay members in 70 countries, said in a statement published in the leading Belgian newspapers.

"The ever-increasing opportunities for legal recourse to euthanasia rather mean opening the door to a new kind of barbarism: a choice, welcomed by the society of self-elimination of the sick and weak people..."

According to the Community of Sant’Egidio, extending euthanasia to minors risks passing for an "act of compassion, but in reality it is an act of irresponsibility, which abandons a young patient to their fate".

"Society doesn't tell the patient any more: 'we will be there for you, to help you live on with all the necessary means for as long as possible', but tells them instead: 'Think about it! Do you really want to go on living like this?' This way, the desire to live [opposed to] a possible desire to die is subtly undermined in the patient and his entourage."

Guy Swennen (sp.a) speaks during a session of the Senate justice and social affairs commission on the expansion of the euthanasia law for minors, at the federal parliament in Brussels on December 12, 2013 (AFP Photo / Belga)

A decade ago, Belgium became the second country in the world to adopt euthanasia under certain conditions, for those aged 18 and over. The country's legislation states that the patient has to be conscious of their decision, aware of the terminal condition, and fully understand the meaning of a request for euthanasia.

According to reports from the Federal Commission of Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia, the number of cases of euthanasia jumped from 24 in 2002 to 1,432 in 2012.

Member of the Belgian Senate from the cdH (The Humanist Democratic Centre) party, Francis Delpérée, says he can understand the logic of the 2002 law, but points out that things get too complicated when children are involved.

"The moment we start dealing with a minor, problems pop in at once. We have to call a pediatrician or a specialist who will identify the incurable nature of their disease; we have to call a child psychiatrist or psychologist to see if the kid has sufficient understanding; we have to obtain the agreement of the child's parents... And there are myriads of people around the child who may possibly influence his or her choice," Delpérée told La Libre Belgique.

However, a recent poll has showed that three quarters of Belgians support the idea of mercy-killing to children.

"What shocks us a little, is that for the moment, the focus is on euthanasia. We could talk about the end of life more comprehensively, with other techniques and other methods: palliative care, therapeutic reduction, sedation ... It's also necessary to preserve the autonomy of an individual, without making his or her choice depend on a variety of other people," Delpérée remarked.

On Thursday, however, the Senate voted 50 in favor of the proposed measure, with only 17 against it. The bill will now go to the lower house; its supporters expect it to be approved ahead of the May elections.

Open VLD politicians Yoeri Vastersavendts (upper L), Jean-Jacques De Gucht (upper R), Guido De Padt (lower L) and Nele Lijnen (lower R) attend a session of the Senate justice and social affairs commission on the expansion of the euthanasia law for minors, at the federal parliament in Brussels on December 12, 2013 (AFP Photo / Belga)

According to the Belgian branch of the Association for the Right to Die in Dignity (ADMD), the recent vote is "another step toward greater humanization of the end of life".

The group said it hoped local lawmakers would continue their legal work "staying away from delaying maneuvers and political blackmail".

ADMD expect the new law to feature the "same space of words", currently available exclusively for adults, since euthanasia became legal in Belgium, in the measure for children.

According to the group, Thursday's vote has become "another step toward greater humanization of the end of life."

The proposed law appears to be the result of serious work and contradictory debate, according to one of its loyal supporters, member of the Belgian Socialist Party, Philippe Mahoux. He says the challenge was to help ease the suffering of the terminally-ill children.

"I want to say and repeat once more that the time of someone who is suffering is not the same as the time of someone who creates laws. It's time for laws now," the author of the 2002 law stated.

Apart from Belgium, euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands which allows mercy killing for children over 12 years of age. The procedure is regulated there by the "Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act" which states that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not punishable if the attending physician acts in accordance with criteria of due care. Euthanasia is also approved in Luxembourg, for adults only. In Switzerland it is illegal, but doctors can assist a patient seeking to die.