Child euthanasia may soon become legal in Belgium after the Senate voted in favor of a bill that would legalize euthanasia for minors and those suffering from dementia. The bill passed by a margin of 50-17 and must now be considered by the Chamber of Representative, where it is expected to be approved. Efforts to legalize child euthanasia in Belgium had previously been unsuccessfully proposed in 2004 and 2008.
The bill would allow minors to be euthanized if they suffer from a terminal illness, are in great pain, and if their illness is untreatable. In order to be granted euthanasia, the child must be conscious and must understand what euthanasia is. Parents and doctors must approve the child’s request.
Despite its apparent popularity, the bill faces strong religious opposition. A coalition of Belgian religious leaders wrote a letter in which they stated, “We share the anguish of parents if a child's life comes to a premature end, especially when the child suffers. We believe, however, that only palliative care and sedation in a dignified manner can accompany a child dying of disease.” The letter was signed by Catholic Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussel, an Orthodox Patriarch, several Protestant leaders, a rabbi, and the president of the Belgian Muslim's Executive.
The religious leaders argued that euthanasia trivializes the act of killing because humans are made for life. In a letter released on Novermber 6th, they stated, “euthanasia of vulnerable persons, whether children or persons with dementia, is a radical contradiction of their status as human beings. We cannot therefore accept a logic which destroys the foundations of society.”
They emphasize the purpose of medicine as a tool to cure or alleviate serious illnesses and call for “…an end to aggressive therapies and for their replacement by curative or palliative care. We believe that we have no right to let a child suffer: which is why suffering can and must be relieved. Medicine has the means to do this.”
The religious leaders also warned of the consequences of killing young terminal patients, “Love to the end requires an immense courage; terminating a life is an act which not only kills the patient, but destroys a few more ties that exist in our society, in our families, in the grip of a growing individualism.” They also warned about the effects the bill would have on healthcare workers, warning that it may not allow for freedom on conscience.
Legislatures opposed to the bill worry about children’s ability to make such a serious decision, noting that they are susceptible to the influences of their doctors and parents.
However, not everyone agrees with this sentiment. The group of 16 pediatricians who lobbied for the law stated, “In cases of serious illness and imminent death, minors develop very quickly a great maturity, to the point where they are often better able to reflect and express themselves on life than healthy people.”
Archbishop Leonard refuted this rationale noting, “It is strange that minors are considered legally incompetent in key areas, such as getting married, but might (be able) to decide to die.”
Belgium passed its first euthanasia law in 2002. The following year, 235 persons were euthanized. By 2012 this number had risen to 1,432.