Belgium may let suffering children choose to die. Would you?

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Belgian Socialist party Senator Phillipe Mahoux supports euthanasia without age restrictions. Photo courtesy Senator Phillipe Mahoux.

Belgian Socialist party Senator Phillipe Mahoux supports euthanasia without age restrictions. Photo courtesy Senator Phillipe Mahoux.

See how I loaded that headline?

Belgian Socialist party Senator Phillipe Mahoux supports euthanasia without age restrictions. Photo courtesy Senator Phillipe Mahoux.

Belgian Socialist party Senator Phillipe Mahoux supports euthanasia without age restrictions. Photo courtesy Senator Phillipe Mahoux.

Our views of euthanasia (active killing), suicide and physician-assisted dying are greatly shaped by the vocabulary of the discussion. Now, add “age” to the arguments.

But there’s no mincing words over what happened Thursday in Belgium. The parliament overwhelmingly approved a law to lift age restrictions on euthanasia and it goes to the king for signature.

It’s been legal for Belgian adults in “constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated,” since 2002. The extension to minors adds new, required protections: The approval of three doctors, proof that the child understood the finality of euthanasia, and the parents’ approval. This resembles legislation in the Netherlands where only five children have ever euthanasia since a law without age restrictions passed there in 2002.

Do you think the Dutch/Belgian view on euthanasia, autonomy and death at any age will eventually cross to the USA? Should it?

In the USA – where actively causing someone’s death is illegal no matter his or her age or suffering — euthanasia is forbidden. However, five states allow physician assisted dying where a terminally ill adult may receive a lethal prescription but only the patient can choose to take it.

Don’t expect to see euthanasia at any age in the USA, say ethics experts. Catholic doctrine is unswervingly opposed to both euthanasia and assisted dying. And even some supporters of so-called death-with-dignity legislation stop short of calling for extending this to minors.

When the legislation passed its first vote in Belgium last fall, I asked Dr. Paul Wolpe, professor of bioethics and director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, why it’s such a fraught topic.

“There is no topic where the issue of compassion is more split than it is around euthanasia,” said Wolpe.

One view is that “life is so precious that compassion means keeping people alive to experience whatever part of life they can for as long as possible because once it is over, it is over forever.”

The competing view, he said, is that, pain is one of great ruiners of the ability to appreciate life even in the most minor way. It removes joy or purpose. Hence, the compassionate thing when someone is intractable pain is to remove that pain.”

These contesting views have been argued since ancient days, says Wolpe. But only in modern times do we have “the ability to do this without bloodshed.” And only now is the argument beginning to revolve to a great degree “around the question of autonomy – the idea that I have a right to do what I want with my body.”

Euthanasia introduces the idea of making this decision for someone else. We have to examine how far we are willing to go in relieving someone else’s suffering.

“We already make all kinds of decisions about our children’s lives,” Wolpe pointed out.

Already, many parents are willing to let a severely damaged newborn die by withholding or withdrawing treatment when a doctor says there’s nothing that can be done.

And for adults, “when a competent adult decides his life is over, I would not cross the line of euthanasia but I would not put obstacles in that person’s path,” he said.

“But a child is different,” said Wolpe.

“We think children don’t have full facilities to make adult decisions. That is why they are considered minors. We see children make bad decisions about their lives that we think, as adults, they wouldn’t do.

“If we were to allow children to end their lives when they felt pain was great or life was intolerably difficult, we would be opening a Pandora’s box. Young children are not as future oriented, they can’t project themselves years from now in a sophisticated way,” said Wolpe.

It’s tougher once you consider an eight or 13 year old who has lived an entire life in pain and “has a much deeper awareness of what it means. The problem is, he said, once you start dividing – these kids can choose death and those kids can’t  — then you have to decide which child has ‘suffered enough.’ That’s dangerous.”

Where would you stand if it were your infant, your eight year old, your young teen, with no future but pain ahead?

Remember, here at Faith & Reason, we have a rule: All views, respectfully presented, are welcome. So bring your thoughts — and your manners.

  • The Belgian Parliament has just legalized euthanasia for children with incurable conditions – not just teenagers, but children! This same Parliament in 2009 ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in which Article 10 says “every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.” I don’t understand how the Belgian legislators can ratify the CRPD yet at the same time, offer a so-called right-to-die not only to adults, but – heartbreakingly – to children who may feel distraught by their incurable conditions (which could include disabilities). It is abhorrent that we should burden a child with such an unthinkable responsibility in deciding when his or her life should end. Society’s unwritten moral law has always led us to save our children, not destroy them – and certainly not to allow them to destroy themselves. Join me in praying against the culture of death which is sweeping across Europe… and please, let me hear your thoughts about this new law in Belgium.

    “Currently the Belgian euthanasia law limits euthanasia to people who are at least 18 years old. This unprecedented bill would extend euthanasia to children with disabilities,” says Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. “The Belgian Socialist government is adamant that the euthanasia law needs to extend to minors and people with dementia even though there is significant examples of how the current law is being abused and the bracket creep of acceptable reasons for euthanasia continues to grow. The current practice of euthanasia in Belgium appears to have become an easy way to cover-up medical errors.”
    “Regardless of disability, life should be valued. To pass legislation that allows termination of life for people with disabilities who are minors is unacceptable,” he added. “Instead we must make every effort to use the research provided to us to provide attentive care to relieve their physical suffering in a moral way.”
    Dr Paul Saba of Physicians for Social Justice, is very concerned about the situation in Belgium.
    “They are already euthanising people who are depressed or tired of life because they have taken the interpretations of saying physical and/or psychological suffering – you don’t have to have both, if you have one, why is that not enough? If you are suffering, it’s a personal experience and it would be discriminatory for someone to judge what a person is suffering,” he says. “What this teaches us is that despite the government’s assurances that they will set very strict criteria, that won’t work.”

    Joni Eareckson Tada
    Joni and Friends International Disability Center

  • Larry

    Not a big fan of assisted suicide in general. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs and whatnot. It has more to do with the nature of consent and agency.
    Children (even teenagers) are hardly people who one trusts with making decisions based on informed consent.

    Nobody capable of making their own decisions should be dragging others into a decision to commit suicide. It is too high a moral load to ask others to bear. If one is capable of communicating their desires concerning treatment, they are capable of ending their own life. It wouldn’t be pretty or comfortable, but such actions should never be.

  • gilhcan

    Yes, I would allow everyone their natural right to die when suffering is unable to be cured or otherwise mitigated. We are different–supposedly–than lower animals. Choices about how we live and conditions under which we live are as natural as the right to breathe and live. Churches and church people should stop trying to invade those rights with their own notions of their theology and their ethical beliefs.

  • Anton

    Ultimately, I think what is most important in these issues is how a person, even a child, perceives death. If the people involved believe that death leads to “heaven or hell, your choice”, imbued with the alluring and repugnant dreams usually associated, all of their decisions are undoubtedly swayed by that “knowledge”. In my mind, this perception is very unnatural and unhealthy. It unnecessarily complicates and clouds one’s thinking and often leads to unnecessary angst and emotional pain for all involved, regardless of how death actually happens. And since this unnatural strain of thinking persists here, I think it will be a very long time until enough Americans leave it by the wayside so that we are able to address these questions in a truly thoughtful way.

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  • Earold Gunter

    This comment is to see if Cathy Lynn Grossman has censored me completely from all her articles as she has from her recent biased piece on religion and science. If this comment gets posted, I’ll give my comment to that article here.

    My only comment on this article is that children are not capable on making these decisions.

    Religion is poison!!

  • Atheist Max

    Hmmm. I have a lot of questions.
    How many children have asked for or needed euthanasia in Belgium? Did a particular case initiate the law?

    What were the circumstances or the nature of the children’s afflictions? Are we talking about Tay Sachs disease? Other terminal illnesses?
    I would guess this must be extremely rare. Is there a record of misappropriation or inappropriate use of euthanasia – or a history of bad practices which prompted this?

  • klem

    C’mon folks, this child euthanasia law in Belgium will be pushed and stretched until it replaces abortions. Abortions are messy and expensive, euthanizing a newborn is clean and cheap.

    This is the ultimate intention of this child euthanasia law.

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