Federal parliament passes euthanasia law for minors

Summary

The federal parliament yesterday voted 86 to 44 in favour of a law that extends the right to die to those under the age of 18, making Belgium the first country in the world to abolish an age limit for euthanasia

Belgium first country in world with law

Following a heated and divisive debate in Belgium’s parliament yesterday (pictured), legislators ultimately voted in favour of extending euthanasia to terminally ill minors who are capable of making the decision. The vote makes Belgium the first country in the world to legally approve euthanasia without age restrictions.

The vote was carried by 86 votes in favour, with 44 against and 12 abstentions. Votes fell within party lines for Flemish parties CD&V and Vlaams Belang, which were largely against the legislation, while members of SP.A and Open VLD were for it. Votes among NV-A members were split.

Belgium is one of only three countries in the world to have legalised euthanasia, along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Despite fierce opposition from the Catholic church, parliament approved legislation in 2002 to grant the right to die to terminally ill people 18 and over in cases where the person was in “constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated”. Now the country has gone one step further and lifted the age restriction.

According to government figures, 1,432 people chose to die by euthanasia in Belgium in 2012. Many of those arguing the case for euthanasia for minors are medical professionals who have first-hand experience of the pain and suffering endured by youngsters in the terminal stages of illness. In an opinion poll, three in four Belgians said they supported the new law.

The new legislation has been carefully worded to ensure that euthanasia is only carried out in the most extreme situations. It states that the minor must be “in a hopeless medical state of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will shortly cause death”. Any administration of euthanasia to a minor must be with psychiatric and medical approval and with parental consent.

“A step too far,” say bishops

Opponents of the new legislation argue that the extension is not necessary because doctors can perfectly control physical pain and anxiety in terminally ill patients. They also argue that it would be difficult to know if consent had been given in the case of young children.

As the bill was being passed, a protestor in the public gallery cried “murderers!” The Catholic church, too, was officially against extending euthanasia to minors. “We regret the passage of a law that, according to experts, is useless and full of flaws,” said a spokesperson for Belgian bishops. “The right of a child to choose death is a step too far.”

Flemish economist Paul De Grauwe sparked off a furious reaction just before the vote with his tweet: “Euthanasia on children. I can’t explain that to anyone outside Belgium. This is going to be worse for Belgium’s reputation than Dutroux.”

As the first country to abolish an age limitation on euthanasia, Belgium’s decision is being widely reported around the world; international newspapers and TV stations were present in parliament yesterday to broadcast the results of the vote. CNN interviewed Open VLD president Gwendolyn Rutten, who said that “there is no age limit on suffering … if we were to draw a line, like 16 years or 14, that would be arbitrary. We decided that it’s better to leave that decision up to the person themselves, to the medical team, to the parents.”

photo by Benoit Doppagne / BELGA

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