A heated debate on proposals to legalise euthanasia for minors in Belgium intensified this week. The governing Socialist party has proposed the bill while the Christian Democratic Flemish party has declared that it will challenge it in the European Court of Human Rights, if it were to become law.
In an open letter to politicians, 16 paediatricians said that under-18s were capable of making mature, thoughtful decisions about death.
“Why deprive minors of this last possibility,” they said. “Experience shows us 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.”
The practice is already taking place, they argue, and legalisation will take it out of a “dark zone”.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders also responded to the proposal. “We express our deep concern at the risk that such a grave subject will be increasingly trivialised,” they said. “The euthanasia of fragile people, be they children or incapable, is totally inconsistent with their condition as human beings. We cannot accept a logic which will lead to the destruction of society’s foundations.”.
A British barrister and medical ethicist, Charles Foster, listed four misconceptions involved in extending euthanasia for children. He was especially critical about the issue of informed consent.
“Death, so far as we know, is terribly final. And if you’re opting for death, you need to be sure that you’ve got it right. This demands an understanding of many complex facts (such as prognosis – how your disease or condition is going to pan out – and your therapeutic and palliative options), and an evaluation of their significance. It’s hard for anyone; it’s likely to be impossible for children.
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“There’s lots of evidence to show that when we find ourselves in the situations we have most feared (for instance severe disability), we find that those situations are nothing like as unbearable as we anticipated. When we are stripped of much, we value all the more what is left. Try explaining that to a child.”