UK & World News

  • 12 February 2014, 13:08

Belgium Set To Allow Euthanasia For Children

Belgium is preparing for a debate which will pave the way for the lifting of age restrictions on euthanasia and could mean the practice is controversially extended to children.

The lower house of the country's parliament is due to discuss the issue but it is expected to become law.

The plans stipulate euthanasia would be allowed if the patient is conscious of their decision and understands the meaning of the practice.

It also states their request must be approved by the child's parents and medical team, and their illness must be terminal and no treatment to alleviate their distress is available to them.

Last month the Belgian senate voted 50-17 in favour of a law allowing terminally ill children to request euthanasia.

Opponents insist under 18s are not capable of making such decisions but some doctors believe those facing terminal illnesses find a maturity which helps them make decisions about their own fate.

Currently the Netherlands is the only country in the world where euthanasia is legal for children but they must be over the age of 12 to legally end their lives.

But the Belgian bill has no age restrictions. Belgium first approved euthanasia in 2002. 

Since then the number of cases has increased every year - from fewer than 300 in 2003 to approximately 1,500 in recent years.

Dr Gerland van Berlaer, a prominent Brussels paediatrician, believes giving youngsters the option to end their lives is the right thing to do.

He says the law will be specific enough to only apply to a handful of teenage boys and girls who are in the advanced stages of terminal illnesses such as cancer and are suffering unbearable pain.

"We are talking about children that are really at the end of their life," he said.

"It's not that they have months or years to go. Their life will end anyway. 

"The question they ask us is: 'Don't make me go in a terrible horrifying way, let me go now while I am still a human being and while I still have my dignity'."

One opinion poll found 75% of Belgians are in favour of the law change.

But  there is also a vocal opposition and noisy street protests.

Andre Leonard, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and chairman of the Episcopal Conference of Belgium, is worried about the law being extended to children.

"There is a risk of very serious consequences in the long term for society and the meaning we give to life, death and the freedom of human beings," he said.

"We are opening a door that nobody will be able to close."

King Philippe, Belgium's constitutional head of state, must sign the legislation for it to take effect.

So far the 53-year-old monarch and father-of-four has not taken a public position.

Belgium would become the first country in the world to lift age restrictions on euthanasia.

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