In an important step toward universal death with dignity, Belgium recently became the first country to legalize euthanasia without placing any restrictions on age. Despite Belgium’s history as a traditionally Catholic nation, about 75 percent of Belgians are in favor of the law. The only other country to allow minors the right to die is the Netherlands, where those aged 12 to 15 can request euthanasia with a parent’s consent, and 16- and 17-year-olds are only required to notify their parents.
The term “child euthanasia” makes a shocking impression, but it is important to remember that being in favor of child euthanasia is a misleading phrase. No one wants this legislation to be necessary in the first place. Unfortunately, the children who could potentially make use of this law are faced with weeks of both physical and emotional torture before death. In an open letter, 160 Belgian pediatricians cited the high quality of comfort care available with modern medicine as an adequate end-of-life plan. However this choice should be left to the suffering individual given he or she is mentally fit and has the consent of doctors. Similar protective measures exist globally within all current legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide legislation.
The Belgian law rightly provides additional protections for minors, a far more vulnerable group. While the previous Belgian euthanasia legislation allowed adults to end their life based on a state of unbearable suffering, the amendment for children stipulates that the patient must be terminally ill. Dr. Gerland van Berlaer, a pediatric oncologist in Brussels, points out, “If there is still a possible medical treatment, they will not be allowed to ask for euthanasia.” This choice is only made available to only the sickest children. Even then, the legislation limits permissible euthanasia to children who demonstrate a true understanding of the consequences of their choice. This restraint effectively limits the right to older youth who are often more mature than their age due to the trauma of a terminal illness.
Despite the rapid pace of medical research, there comes a time in every terminal patient’s treatment when nothing more can be done. Anyone with the capacity to fully understand their situation should have every option available to them in a dignified manner. While the Netherlands dictated an appropriate age for children capable of making the difficult decision to die, the Belgian approach is more fluid and leaves that decision to medical professionals. Each of these laws is only one of many possible options for children in a terrible situation — only five minors have made use of the Dutch law since it was passed in 2002. Ideally, this option will become unnecessary in every country. Until then, it is critical that the terminally ill who do not wish to suffer, no matter their age, should not be forced to do so because of their country’s decrees.
Tess Woosley is a contributing columnist. Email her at [email protected]