Belgium passes law to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children

Critics question if a child has the capacity to make the decisionto end their life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 9:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 9:22pm


Belgium has become the first country to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children of all ages after a debate in which critics questioned a child's ability to make the decision to die.

Despite opposition from the Catholic Church, which called the move "a step too far", and some paediatricians, parliament adopted the legislation on Thursday by 86 votes to 44, with 12 abstentions. The legislation makes the country the second after the Netherlands to allow mercy-killing for children, and the first to lift all age restrictions.

Unlike the Dutch across the border, where euthanasia is allowed for children over 12, the law states that any incurably sick child may request to end their suffering if "conscious", and if equipped with "a capacity of discernment".

A debate before the vote was interrupted by a man who shouted out "murderers" in French, before being removed from the house.

"It is not a question of imposing euthanasia on anyone ... but of allowing a child not to agonise in pain," said Socialist MP Karine Lalieux ahead of the vote.

Belgium is one of three countries in Europe to allow euthanasia for adults, and a poll in October showed 73 per cent supported extending the right to children.

"The right to consider the question of life and death cannot be restricted to adults," said MP Daniel Bacquelaine.

Addressing controversy over the decision not to set an age restriction for "discernment", he said a child's "legal age isn't the same as mental age".

Opponents, largely members of centrist Christian-leaning parties, attacked the legislation for failing to set a minimum age for youngsters to be able to request euthanasia.

Saying "the world is watching us in amazement", Christian Democrat Sonja Becq said a child's "capacity of discernment" was a "vague" concept, "a grey area".

"How will a doctor determine whether a child has a capacity of discernment?" she asked.

Socialist senator Philippe Mahoux, author of Belgium's historic 2002 "right to die" legislation and himself a doctor, had called for the law to be widened to minors so as to provide a legal framework for doctors who help children in pain die out of mercy outside of the law.

Euthanasia was "the ultimate gesture of humanity", he said.