Belgium Nears a Law on Child Euthanasia ; Measure Would Extend Right to Die to Those with 'Unbearable' Suffering

By Higgins, Andrew | International New York Times, December 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

Belgium Nears a Law on Child Euthanasia ; Measure Would Extend Right to Die to Those with 'Unbearable' Suffering


Higgins, Andrew, International New York Times


The upper house of Begium's Parliament has voted to extend a 2002 law legalizing euthanasia for adults to terminally ill minors suffering unbearable pain.

Belgium has taken a big step toward becoming the first country to allow euthanasia for incurably ill children, with the upper house of Parliament voting by a large majority to extend to minors a 2002 law legalizing the practice for adults.

Under the amended law, euthanasia would become legal for children afflicted with "constant and unbearable physical suffering" and equipped "with a capacity of discernment." During a sometimes heated public debate leading up to the vote Thursday, religious leaders condemned the move as entering "a logic that leads to the destruction of society's foundations."

Philippe Mahoux, a Socialist Party senator and sponsor of the legislation, described giving terminally ill children the right to "die in dignity" as the "ultimate gesture of humanity." He dismissed the religious leaders' criticism, saying it was unrepresentative of the views of many ordinary believers, who he said supported the legal change.

Although Europe is generally far more accepting of euthanasia or assisted suicide than other parts of the world, only a handful of countries have formally legalized medical interventions to cause death. Luxembourg permits euthanasia for adults, and Switzerland allows doctors to help patients die but not to actively kill them. The Netherlands allows euthanasia in special cases for gravely ill patients 12 or older.

But Belgium -- where adult euthanasia cases already number around 1,000 a year -- is the first country to propose lifting all age restrictions.

Fifty of the 71 eligible members of the Belgian Senate voted for the measure on Thursday. Just 17, mostly from the conservative, and traditionally Roman Catholic, Christian Democrats, voted against. Four did not vote.

Before becoming law, the changes must be voted on by the Parliament's lower house, which is expected to take up the matter before elections in May. The measure seems likely to pass, and it would put Belgium in a separate category from almost any other nation when it comes to allowing the terminally ill to choose to die.

Mr. Mahoux said in an interview before the vote that euthanasia for terminally ill children was already practiced on occasion in some Belgian hospitals and that the law would not lead to a surge in medically accelerated death among sick children but would save doctors from potential criminal prosecution. …

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