Belgium has become the first nation in the world to allow terminally ill children under the age of 12 the right to assisted dying, adding fuel to the global debate over assisted dying.
The legislation was given approval last week by Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives in a 86-44 vote with 12 abstentions. The country’s senate had previously voted to approve the bill in a 50-17 vote. Belgium decriminalized assisted suicide for terminally ill people in 2002, but until now the law has only applied to people over 18.
The new legislation removes that age limit, but it does so with some very strict safeguards which will probably mean that this legislation could only really ever apply to older children. For instance, the legislation states that the patient must be conscious of their decision and also understand the concept of euthanasia. This is in addition to other more run-of-the-mill safeguards, like the child’s parents and the child’s medical team giving their approval, and confirmation that the child’s illness is both terminal and that there is no reasonable treatment available that could alleviate the great pain they are feeling as a result of their terminal illness.
Previously, the leading right to die legislation in the world had been current Dutch law which carries a minimum age restriction of 12 years old (with parental oversight). Technically, Belgium’s legislation could allow younger children to die.
The legislation must still be given royal ascent by Belgium’s King Philippe, but this is largely only a formality.
“This is not about lethal injections for children. This is about terminally ill children, whose death is imminent and who suffer greatly,” Carina Van Cauter, of the Flemish Liberal Democrats is quoted as saying as to why the majority of Belgium’s lawmakers have supported the bill. The legislation, they say, is targeted at children who would only have months if not weeks to live, and who would suffer greatly in that time. This is to spare them that pain. Lawmakers have been clear that this new law will be treated as a last resort for all patients.
While euthanasia for adults is not controversial in Belgium and has strong majority support, this new legislation has divided people. Religious conservatives, chief among them the Catholic Church, have opposed the bill on religious grounds. The secular arguments against the legislation have largely fallen on the notion that the law could be abused and children who did not want to die could be killed — this notion is not supported by statistical review of adult euthanasia, as some have claimed. However, some concerns have been more substantial, namely questions about whether any young child could really understand the concept of euthanasia and how assessing comprehension of this would be difficult.
The law is interesting in a wider sense given that Belgium is a member of the EU. The overarching European courts have refused to find a universal right to die, therefore every country is allowed to make its own decisions as to its own euthanasia laws. Nevertheless, the law has sparked a debate across Europe, and will no doubt feed into discussions like those currently being had in countries like the UK where campaigners have long called for an adult assisted dying law but where lawmakers have been incredibly slow to act.
With U.S. states Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington allowing some form of assisted suicide for adults, religious conservatives in America have also rushed to suggest that they were right all along and the so-called slippery slope of allowing assisted dying would inevitably end with children also dying.
“I think the fact that Belgium is passing this law should sound as a warning bell to other countries which might be tempted to legalize euthanasia,” professor Michel Ghins, co-founder of Euthanasie Stop, is quoted as saying. “Because once the step has been made it’s very difficult to prevent all kinds of extensions to take place.”
Still, those who support the right to die counter that with the proper safe-guards there is no slippery slope — there is only a compassionate approach to helping terminally ill people, and perhaps even children, who are facing weeks of agony or mental collapse to be assisted in taking their own lives while they still have some quality of life remaining and can therefore die in peace.
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