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Should Terminally Ill Children Have the Right to End Their Lives?

Should Terminally Ill Children Have the Right to End Their Lives?

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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121 comments

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2:29AM PST on Mar 8, 2014

I live in Belgium, and I applaud the governement for this update on euthansia
As stated, it's not just a quick desicion a parent can make, there is substantial investigation and approval by no less then 3 doctors. When we have a sick pet that we love, but it's suffering, don't we go for the less painfull way and give them a shot? Now imagine it's YOUR child that has cancer in it's last stage and is suffering tremendously,....do you still want to hang on by giving morpine, watching as they slowly and painfully die? Well if that's the case I feel sorry for your children because in my book that's just cruel. I believe no one has the right to say we cannot terminate our own life, and yes, kids nowadays know exactly what's going on, they understand more then you give them credit for.
No slippery slope, just a way to peacefully end a hopeless situation.
I sincerely hope that non of those opposing this, ever have to suffer from an incurable disease.

7:32PM PST on Feb 24, 2014

Thank you for the information.

1:26PM PST on Feb 24, 2014

All people, requardless of age need to be allowed to make this decision, especially with all the safe guards and help in place, and this needs to be known about thru out our life times. Others may not approve, but they cannot live your life, nor need they be given any say in the timing of your personal death. Anything less is delusional.

3:34PM PST on Feb 23, 2014

I think all terminally ill people should be allowed to end their lives. If their pain cannot be controlled, and they are mentally stable and aware, they should be able to make that decision.

5:00PM PST on Feb 22, 2014

AS liberal as I am I really am on the fence about this kind of thing even in adults. I hate the idea of anyone suffering but somehow I feel it's all part of the process. My mother in law was is great pain and comatose but hanging on and hanging on. It wasn't until the Social worker told her how we had had this trip planned and had to go not matter what. She told her she had a choice to either die before we left so we could say good bye, die while we were gone alone, or hang on until we got back. She passed the next day. Subconciously we have more power over our bodies than we know.

12:26PM PST on Feb 22, 2014

whats next for Belgium, allowing children under 12 to have sex with their parents approval

10:36PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

I am so happy I'm not a religious freak who would say no to this just because of there religion . do anyone think a parent would kill their child with out much deep thinking and for thought ? but is it right to watch someone especially a child suffer needlessly ? of course it would prolly never be an easy decision, but at least it gives a parent some choice . other than to see there child suffering and in great pain .

5:14PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

I just researched the Cruzan V. Missouri and Quinlan cases for a project in school, a right to die controversy. In the Quinlan case, a religious advisor regarded Karen Quinlan, who was in Persistent Vegetative State at the time, which is incurable, as an "Extraordinary" case, where there was no way Karen could ever regain consciousness, or return normal, so it was deemed safe to end her life. If someone can be treated, or not be traumatized, i think it is okay to let them live unless they say otherwise. Nancy Cruzan suffered PVS as well, and she stated years before her death that if she were ever in an incurable state she would want to die.
My grandfather and his parents is applying for assisted suicide, and i fully support them as they are very sick.
If a child is extremely ill and in pain, it may be ethical to end their suffering, WITH THEIR CONSENT. Though that could be a difficult choice. If they do recover and are gravely traumatized, it also may be a choice.

5:04PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

As much as I support, fully and with all my heart, euthanasia for people who want to go that route the question of children is a tough one. Terminally ill children grow up very fast and I suppose that with lots of controls in place that this should be an option for them as well. Ill children have so little control over anything in their lives, even their parents are subject to the will of the medical profession it seems heartless to to deny them this right.

3:29PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

A too difficult and too terrible subject - agree with @sheila h. and @Carol S.

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