On Feb. 13, 2014, Belgium passed a law that provides the “right to die” to terminally ill children of any age. The legislation is popular in Belgium, but it has sparked outrage and controversy in the international community.
A history of “right to die” laws
Few phrases ignite heated debate quite like the phrase “right to die” and with good reason. The debate about the role of medicine in prolonging life and hastening death carries ethical, moral and religious implications for our entire society.
Many people think of right to die laws as nothing more than euthanasia, in which a physician administers a lethal dose of muscle relaxers to a terminally ill patient. In reality, right to die laws are far more nuanced. In the United States, for instance, euthanasia is entirely illegal, but physician-assisted suicide — in which a doctor provides a terminally ill patient with the means and instructions to commit suicide in his or her home — is legal in four states.
Other nations, however, have approached right to die laws differently than the United States by allowing euthanasia or by easing the restrictions on physician-assisted suicide. Regardless of each nation’s particular approach, most have clearly specified that right to die laws apply only to adults.
The new Belgian precedent
The Belgian law passed on Feb. 13, however, shifted the precedent for right to die laws to include children. Prior to the passage of the Belgian law, the Netherlands was the only other nation in the world that allowed euthanasia for terminally ill children, but it required them to be at least 12 years old. The law in Belgium diverges from the Dutch law by legalizing euthanasia for all terminally ill children, regardless of their age.
Advocates contend that the checks and balances will prevent inappropriate use of the law while also improving patient quality of life, but opponents claim that it is a frightening and unnecessary entrance down a slippery slope.
Division among Belgian experts
Pediatricians and lawmakers — both in Belgium and beyond — are deeply divided on the legislation. In Belgium, the Flemish Liberal Democratic Party backs the law and advocates that the legislation is intended to protect terminally ill children and their families from suffering greatly in a situation of imminent death. Lobbyists also make the point that giving terminally ill and suffering children the right to die will improve the mental and emotional health of exhausted caregivers.
Many in the medical community, however, are opposed to the law. A coalition of 160 practicing Belgian pediatricians published an open letter to urge lawmakers to reconsider the passage of the law. These medical practitioners posted that there is little demand for such treatment, that high-quality palliative care can manage pain effectively without death, that the prospect of euthanasia further complicates medical practice as there is no real way to discern whether or not children are able to make such a decision for themselves. These pediatricians, and a cohort of like-minded nurses, feel that the best care for terminally ill children is pain control and support services for caregivers.
Parents sound off on a child’s right to die
We spoke with several parents to hear their opinions and most of the ones we spoke to were horrified by the legislation and viewed it as a slippery slope. “In my opinion,” said mother of four, Geri, “it’s just the next chapter in the saga of freedom of choice. They’re starting with terminally ill kids — can handicapped be far behind?” Mother of two, Katie, echoed the sentiment when she said, “I just cannot fathom how it’s okay to take a child’s life, especially when high-quality pain control is available for terminal illness. It feels like we’re going to start short-cutting the full cycle of life when it seems convenient to do so.”
While she doesn’t support the law, mom Becca added, “I don’t like it, but I guess I don’t know what I would do if I was in that position. Nothing would be more agonizing than watching my child suffer and slip away slowly.”
What do you think about Belgium’s new law?