Belgium took a big step Thursday to becoming the first country to allow euthanasia for incurably ill children,after the upper house of Parliament voted 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 in the run-up to the vote,religious leaders condemned the move as entering a logic that leads to the destruction of societys 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.
He said the legislation did not seek to define death – that is for theologians and philosophers – but to allow young people,with the assent of their parents,to choose the manner of their dying in the event of terminal illness and intolerable physical pain.
Although Europe is generally far more accepting of euthanasia or assisted suicide than the United States,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 members of the Belgian Senate voted for the measure on Thursday. Just 17,mostly from the conservative,and traditionally Catholic,Christian Democrats,voted against. Four did not vote.
Before becoming law,the changes must be voted on by the Parliaments lower house,which is expected to take up the matter before elections in May. The measure seems likely to pass,and would put Belgium in a separate category from almost any other nation when it comes to allowing the terminally ill to choose to die.
The idea of euthanasia for children has been taboo in most countries,not only for religious reasons but also because of the horrors of Nazi Germany,which killed thousands of mentally and physically handicapped children under a program known as Kinder Euthanasie.
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.
The amended law extending the right to die to children mandates that euthanasia can be carried out only at the demand of a patient and that such a request be voluntary,considered and repeated and not the result of external pressure.
Unlike adults,children would not be allowed to choose death on the grounds of psychological suffering but only when there was no hope of recovery from an illness that involves extreme physical pain. Parents must give their approval in writing.
Religious groups,however,view Belgiums efforts to extend its already contentious 2002 law to children as a dangerous erosion of moral barriers protecting the sanctity of life. We mark out opposition to this extension and express our trepidation in the face of the risk of a growing trivialization of such a grave reality, the leaders of Belgiums Christian,Muslim and Jewish communities said in a statement.