Despite religious opposition, the Belgian Senate voted Dec. 13 in favor of a bill which would expand legal euthanasia to terminally ill minors and persons with dementia.
The bill now has to be considered by the country’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Representatives, which is widely expected to approve it. The bill passed in the Senate by a margin of 50-17.
After the bill was passed by the Senate's justice and social affairs committee, a coalition of Belgian religious leaders wrote, “We share the anguish of parents if a child's life comes to a premature end, especially when the child suffers. We believe, however, that only palliative care and sedation in a dignified manner can accompany a child dying of disease.”
The letter was signed by Catholic Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussel, as well as an Orthodox patriarch, several Protestant leaders, a rabbi, and the president of the Belgian Muslim's Executive.
“We plead for an end to aggresive therapies and for their replacement by curative or palliative care. We believe that we have no right to let a child suffer: which is why suffering can and must be relieved. Medicine has the means to do this.”
The religious leaders added that euthanization “trivializes the act of killing.” They said “we are made for life.”
Allowing the killing of young terminal patients would have consequences, they warned.
“Love to the end requires an immense courage; terminating a life is an act which not only kills the patient, but destroys a few more ties that exist in our society, in our families, in the grip of a growing individualism.”
The leaders had said in a Nov. 6 letter that “euthanasia of vulnerable persons, whether children or persons with dementia, is a radical contradiction of their status as human beings. We cannot therefore into into a logic which destroys the foundations of society.”
The bill would allow minors, with no set age limit, to receive euthanasia if they suffer from terminal illness, are in great pain, and there is no way to treat their disease. The patient would also have to be conscious of their decision and understand what euthanasia is. The child's parents and doctors would both have to approve the request.
Adults already have the legal right to receive deadly drugs.
A group of 16 pediatricians lobbied for the law, saying that “in cases of serious illness and imminent death, minors develop very quickly a great maturity, to the point where they are often better able to reflect and express themselves on life than healthy people.”
Archbishop Léonard countered that “it is strange that minors are considered legally incompetent in key areas, such as getting married, but might (be able) to decide to die.”
Legislators opposed to the bill said that it could be difficult to determine whether children would have the capacity to make such a decision.
Els Van Hoof of the Christian Democratic and Flemish Party noted that children are susceptible to the influence of their parents and physicians.
Belgium’s religious leaders also cited concerns about the bill's effect on healthcare workers, warning that there might not be safeguards for freedom of conscience.
Belgium passed its first euthanasia law in 2002. The following year, 235 persons were euthanized. In 2012, there were 1,432 cases.
The law’s promised safeguards appear not to have been followed. According to The Washington Times, the European Institute of Bioethics found that “the safeguards and strict conditions of the law were almost immediately cast aside” after the 2002 law was passed.
But a Socialist Party senator, Philippe Mahoux, claimed that in the past 10 years, the independent commission “to evaluate cases of euthanasia” in the country “had no abuses reported.”
Efforts in Belgium to extend euthanasia to children and those with dementia were proposed but defeated in both 2004 and 2008.
Euthanasia or assisted suicide are also legal in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.