Kids and Euthanasia

Article excerpt

Could children ever be eligible for euthanasia?

Even to ask such a question brands the questioner as a hysterical opponent of euthanasia trying to use emotion-laden scare tactics.

Euthanasia supporters have worked mightily and successfully to persuade the public that the typical recipient of legalized death would be an elderly person who, on his deathbed, freely chooses to die sooner rather than later. This image has been cemented in the public consciousness. Even opponents of euthanasia are affronted by any suggestion that young people would be among the targets were assisted suicide legalized.

This was readily apparent during a 1997 campaign to repeal Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act." In 1994, Oregon became the only place in the entire world where the law has transformed the crime of assisted suicide into a medical treatment. The law was held up in the courts and, before it went into effect, voters were faced with an attempt to repeal it. Television commercials were duly produced. One such commercial, intended to persuade voters to overturn the law, was the "Billy" commercial. It depicted a young man of about 19 or 20 who appeared frightened and desperate on receiving the diagnosis of a terminal condition and opted for the lethal dose. A voice-over explained that Billy's death from the drugs, far from being peaceful, could be lingering and painful.

The Billy ad was rejected by six television stations, including all three network affiliates in Portland. It was called "distasteful," "over-the-edge," "disgusting," and "unbelievable" by both sides. Although some of the rejection of the commercial's message centered on the claims about lingering death, most people were turned off by Billy's youth. No one could believe that someone who looked like a college freshman would qualify for doctorassisted suicide.

The ad-although accurate-went too far. It violated a major tenet in the art of argument and persuasion: "If a listener thinks that you are speaking falsely about any fact, she will be less likely to believe other facts that you assert or inferences that you suggest should be drawn."1

That is, not only is it important to tell the truth, it is also important to tell the believable truth. Until now, facts about euthanasia and children have been clearly in the realm of unbelievable truth. But, last summer, a development in the Netherlands changed that ever so slightly.

Wake-up Call from the Netherlands

Euthanasia has been widely and openly practiced in the Netherlands for years, yet it has remained technically illegal. (The practice is justified under the legal doctrine of force majeure. Under this doctrine, it is deemed that physicians are caught between two duties-following the law and relieving patient suffering-and, thus, responsibility to the patient makes euthanasia permissible, if not legal.) In mid-August, the Dutch government published a proposal to formally legalize the practice.

According to the proposal, euthanasia would be legal if:

* The patient makes a voluntary request;

* The patient is suffering irremediable and unbearable pain (Note: Dutch court decisions have found that either "psychic" (emotional) or physical pain can be used to meet the criterion of "unbearable suffering," terminal illness has never been a requirement for euthanasia in the Netherlands);

* All medical options have been exhausted;

* A second medical opinion has been obtained;

* The euthanasia death is "carefully carried out"; and

* The case is reported by the physician.2

These provisions would have received little attention-other than a report that technical legalization of a current practice was set to take place-had it not been for another aspect of the proposal: It also provided for legalization of euthanasia for children. World attention focused on that aspect of the plan: "The most eye-catching aspect of the bill, and one that has focused international attention on the Netherlands, is that it would give children between the ages of 12 and 16 the right to request euthanasia and-with the doctor's consent-have their wishes prevail even if their parents object. …