Euthanasia: where do children stand? aarongilson

On February 13th, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives passed a bill authorizing euthanasia to be applied without any age restrictions, therefore extensible to children. The law was adopted by “86 votes to 44 with 12 abstentions [1]. It will come into effect once King Philippe, a known supporter, grants his approval.

The purpose of the law is to “lift the age restriction on euthanasia” [2] and make it legally applicable to children who suffer from a terminal illness that results in permanent and unbearable pain for the child, while leading to death. However, in the case of children, the option of euthanasia is dependent upon consent granted by the parents as well as the confirmation, from medical professionals, that the illness is incurable.

In order for euthanasia to be applied to a child, a series of steps need to be completed. Different experts' opinions must be heard, aside from that of the medical professional(s) accompanying the child, and they all must agree that the illness is terminal and will lead to death in the near future.

Then, a paediatric psychiatrist or psychologist has to attest that the child is mentally capable of taking such a decision. According to Dr. Jan Bernheim, a cancer researcher from the Free University of Brussels, “children are surprisingly grown up and can think clearly when they are seriously ill. (…) They are in fact psychologically much older and more mature than their calendar age would suggest”. The next step is to inform the parents or the legal representatives of the child about the conditions of the illness and to ask for their consent. Naturally, both the child and her family will receive continuous and adequate psychological support.

According to Belgian legislation, euthanasia has been authorized on adults since 2002. Evidently, Belgium has become the first country in the world sanctioning the use of euthanasia without age restrictions, and therefore, on children. Since 2002, all the cases of euthanasia have been scrutinized and controlled by a specialized federal commission that comprises 16 medical doctors.

Naturally, the adoption of this law was met with protests from several sectors of Belgian society, with all main religious denominations united in vehement opposition.

This expansion of euthanasia to include children is particularly controversial considering that besides evoking the traditional debate between those supporting the unconditional and infrangible right to life, and those who support the right of choosing to die, it pertains possibly the most sensitive element of any society – children.

Sonja Becq, a representative from the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, has argued that euthanasia has not brought a happy-ending to this issue [3]. Several arguments have been raised against the acknowledgement of “a state of discernment” that allows the child to make a vital decision, while not being authorized to buy alcohol and cigarettes, precisely because of the perceived absence of mature judgment. The perception of the “state of discernment” of children is subjective and may be influenced by several exterior factors, strengthening the arguments put forward by those opposing the law.

The Catholic Church has been largely leading the opposition movement. From the Anglican Church came the criticism of Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and its spiritual leader, who declared that all lives are precious and valuable in the eyes of God and that is something which cannot be doubted by any professional. “To say that there are certain conditions in which life is now legally declared to be not worth living is a major shift in the moral and spiritual atmosphere.” [4]

Child euthanasia is one of the most evident examples of some of the irreconcilable differences between science and religion. While different religions are not willing to consider whether one’s life is actually worth living under certain conditions, science has forced society to confront itself with an expansive notion of euthanasia that has placed the life of children right at the center of the debate, while the phenomenon seems to be escalating in certain European countries, particularly in the Netherlands.

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo Credits: aarongilson via Flickr

[1] (consulted on 23/02/2014)
[2] (consulted on 23/02/2014)
[3] (consulted on 23/02/2014)
[4] (consulted on 23/02/2014)
[5] (consulted on 23/02/2014)