Yesterday, Belgian lawmakers voted 86-44 to extend the country’s euthanasia laws to children, with no age limit. The new law will mean that voluntary euthanasia will be open to children suffering from terminal illness, who are near death and in constant and unbearable pain, provided they are deemed psychologically capable of making the decision, and their parents or legal representatives, as well as a team of medical experts agree.
Euthanasia has been legal for adults in Belgium since 2002, and in its neighbour, The Netherlands, euthanasia is legal for children over 12. Belgium will be the first country to lift all age restrictions – although presumably the requirement that a child is deemed by experts to be capable of making the decision will restrict euthanasia for very young children. Nevertheless, this feels like a huge, and potentially dangerous, step.
There are several grounds on which you can oppose voluntary euthanasia. You can disagree with it fundamentally and on moral grounds – an argument that those who approve of voluntary euthanasia in principle will find very hard to refute. The best I can offer is that while it is a terrible thought, and a difficult one to imagine, faced with the prospect of being terminally ill, in endless pain and with no hope of any improvement in the quality of my life, I believe I’d like to be given the option of determining the manner and timing of my own death.
Then there are practical grounds for opposing euthanasia – mainly centred on the fear that the security checks and psychological tests are not rigorous enough. There’s a concern that the terminally ill or the severely disabled will feel pressurised into requesting euthanasia, perhaps because they feel they are a burden, or that euthanasia will be granted to those who are mentally unwell.
Finally there’s the “slippery slope” argument, that there’s something wrong with a society that signs up to voluntary euthanasia and that it will open the door to other, much less palatable practices, including involuntary euthanasia. The best guard against the slippery slope argument is strong, continued scrutiny of euthanasia laws, which brings me to my next point.
When it comes to extending Belgium's euthanasia laws to children, my biggest concern is practical. Will children come under pressure from their parents to agree to euthanasia, because their parents can’t bear to see them suffer? How do you ask an ill child if they want medical help to die? At what age will psychologists determine that a child is capable of deciding whether or not they want assistance to die? Some doctors in Belgium have argued that there was no need to rush through this new law, and that the guidelines for assessing a child’s ability to make the decision were still to ill-defined. I side with them.