Should a terminally ill child be given the right to choose death over life?

A 17-year-old has committed doctor-assisted suicide in Belgium, the first minor to do so under rules adopted in 2014 allowing euthanasia for people of all ages

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 1:54pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 9:20pm

The death of a terminally ill 17-year-old who became the first minor to be euthanised in Belgium since age restrictions were lifted two years ago has renewed debate on such mercy killings for children amid wide public support for the law.

Liberal Senator Jean-Jacques De Gucht, who wrote the law, confirmed the death of the sick juvenile Saturday.

Ageing, indebted Japan debates right to ‘die with dignity’

He said the minor was from Belgium’s Flemish region, but declined to provide any further details about the patient to protect the privacy of the grieving family.

Belgium is the only country that allows minors of any age assistance in dying, De Gucht said. In Holland, the lower age limit for euthanasia is 12 years.

“It’s terrible when a youngster suffers, but it gives me some comfort to know that now there is a choice out there for children in the final terminal stages,” De Gucht said. “It’s important that society doesn’t neglect people in such pain.”

The Belgian law has very strict rules for the euthanasia to be approved. It requires the minor to be in the final stages of a terminal illness, to understand the difference between life and death rationally and to have asked to end his or her life on repeated occasions. It also requires parental consent and finally the approval of two doctors, including a psychiatrist.

Saying goodbye: when is it time euthanise a beloved pet?

The law — one of the most far-reaching in the Western world — had wide public support when it was introduced in 2014, but was opposed by some pediatricians and the country’s Roman Catholic clergy.

Catholic teaching forbids euthanasia and the president of the Italian bishops conference on Saturday described the news of the euthanasia of a child as painful and worrisome.

“It pains us as Christians but it also pains us as persons,” Genoa Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco told Italian news agency ANSA.

As House of Representative members in Belgium cast their ballots in 2014 and an electronic tally board lit up with enough green lights to indicate the measure would carry, a lone protester in the chamber shouted “assassins!”

Socialist Hans Bonte at the time said no member of the House hoped the law would ever be used. But he said all Belgians, including minors, deserved the right to “bid farewell to life in humane circumstances” without having to fear they were breaking the law.

French lawmakers approve ‘continuous sedation until death’, but not euthanasia

Some have questioned whether children should be allowed to make the choice between life and death. In 2014, a group of doctors — including pediatricians — signed a group letter to voice opposition to the measure.

“A lot of people — in whatever profession — still have a problem coping with the idea that people can choose when they end their own life,” De Gucht said.

When amending the law, Belgian legislators had decided not to include psychological suffering in the list of factors determining whether euthanasia may be allowed for minors, though it is admissable for adults.

Since the law was changed, there have been other euthanasia requests from minors but none had previously been granted, said Jacqueline Herremans, a member of Belgium’s federal euthanasia commission.

Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew considered euthanasia in his final years, daughter reveals

The whole process is “very controlled” and “often very long” and particularly difficult when it concerns a minor, she added.

Altogether over 2,000 mercy killings were declared in Belgium last year, a record number since the practice was made legal in 2002.

Last weekend Belgian Paralympian Marieke Vervoort said in Rio that she is considering euthanasia to escape a life of unbearable physical pain - only not quite yet.

Vervoort, who won silver in the 400m wheelchair race at the Paralympic Games, played down earlier reports that she planned to be euthanized after her return from Brazil.

Switzerland sees ‘suicide tourism’ numbers double over four years

“I have my (euthanasia) papers in my hand, but I’m still enjoying every little moment. When the moment comes when I have more bad days than good days, then I have my euthanasia papers, but the time is not there yet,” she told a news conference in Rio, Brazil, where the Paralympic Games are taking place.

After the Netherlands and Belgium, Luxembourg approved euthanasia but for adults only in 2009.

In Switzerland, doctors can assist a patient seeking to die but euthanasia itself is illegal.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse