This week, Belgium is taking an unprecedented step in abolishing age restrictions for its euthanasia law, extending the right to children. This would amend the law that requires someone to be 18 or older to include minors, but with certain restrictions.
The right to die, and who, if anyone has the power to make that choice has long been debated. It's an ethical conclusion, and merciful, one reserved for someone with a terminal illness, allowing that person to refuse further treatment, or commit suicide.
Belgium is one of a handful of countries where euthanasia is legal. Other countries where some form of euthanasia is legal include The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. In the United States, assisted suicide, a form of euthanasia, is allowed in four states, Washington, Vermont, Oregon and Montana.
Calling the proposed change to the law an "ultimate act of humanity," one doctor said that if we question why a terminally-ill child would even consider euthanasia, we need to remember these critically ill children are surrounded by death and dying. They do think about death, but they do need to talk about the concept.
To be merciful, it is only right to extend to those few terminally ill teenagers the right to end their lives with dignity and grace, giving them the time to say goodbye to friends and family in their own way. Life is precious, and knowing you are about to die is a part of that life. But how you die, when you do have a choice is what the amendment is all about.
On December 12, the Belgium Senate voted 50-17 to approve an amendment changing the 2002 euthanasia law so that it would apply to minors, with certain restrictions. The additional conditions include having parental consent and the requirement the child asking for euthanasia be evaluated by a psychiatrist and psychologist to ascertain their "capacity for discernment."
The proposed amendment went before the House of Representatives on Wednesday for debate on whether to accept the changes, and will be voted on Thursday. Passage of the amended law is expected. While one poll showed 75 percent of the public was in favor of the proposed changes, there has still been vocal opposition.
Belgium's constitutional head of state, King Phillippe, a father of four, must sign the legislation for it to go into affect. The monarch has refrained from making any public comments on the amendment, but this is not unusual, says spokesman Pierre De Bauw. He further explained, saying, "We never give any comment on any piece of legislation being discussed in Parliament."
One proponent of the change in the law is Dr. Gerland van Berlaer, a prominent physician with the pediatric critical care unit of University Hospital Brussels. He says, "We are talking about children that are really at the end of their life. It's not that they have months or years to go. Their life will end anyway. The question they ask us is: 'Don't make me go in a terrible, horrifying way, let me go now while I am still a human being and while I still have my dignity."'
Archbishop Andre Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels and chairman of the Episcopal Conference of Belgium, pointed out, "We are opening a door that nobody will be able to close." His opposition will hit home with many people, because he further mentions the long-term consequences on society based of what kind of meaning we give to the freedom of individuals, as well as life and death.
Many people have been staging protests against the passage of the amendment, fearing there are not enough safeguards in place. Some opponents are fearful that children incapacitated by severe illness and disease could be unduly influenced into making an irreversible decision. This, and other reasons prompted an open letter, signed by 160 Belgium pediatricians, arguing there was no immediate need for a change, and modern medicine had the ability to alleviate even the worst pain in sick children.