march2014toonOn Feb. 13, Belgium became the first country to approve euthanasia for children when the Chamber of Representatives passed the measure 86-44 with 12 abstentions. The Senate voted 50-17 in favour of expanding the country’s 12-year-old euthanasia to include children last December.

The measure, which permits any child with the “capacity of discernment” to request a lethal injection or concoction of barbiturate drugs with the consent of their parents, was opposed by an alliance of religious and pro-life groups. The Christian Democrats in both houses of the Belgian legislature mostly opposed the Socialist government’s bill. The Council of Europe, a human rights group, also condemned the bill, saying before it passed that it “betrays some of the most vulnerable children in Belgium by accepting that their lives may no longer have any inherent value or worth and that they should die.”

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, called the move a “form of abandonment.” He told that “Belgium has abandoned the elderly, and now they are saying they will abandon their children.” He said the new law is not about ending suffering for children with disabilities, but about expanding the “categories that are eligible for” euthanasia.

The new law would permit those under 18 to request euthanasia with parental consent. Under the law a child can request euthanasia if they are “in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short term.”

The child must make repeated requests to be killed, be supported in his decision by parents and the treating physicians, and undergo a psychiatric evaluation to ensure that the child is not suffering any mental illness and has competence or capacity.

Schadenberg said the current euthanasia rules are widely abused. “Euthanasia has been really out of control in Belgium for quite some time,” he said. “We know from studies that about 32 percent of euthanasia deaths (are carried out) without requests. Over half of euthanasia deaths are not reported.”

Some critics point to the fact that on numerous other issues, the lack of maturity of those under 18 severely restricts their freedom. Carine Brochier of the European Institute of Bioethics in Belgium said, “a child cannot buy a house in Belgium. A child cannot buy alcohol in Belgium. And this law would allow a child to ask to be killed. And that is a real problem.”

Euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and Switzerland. Terminally ill children older than 12 can be euthanized in the Netherlands with the consent of the parent.