BBC News 9 February 2014
An incurably sick child, a request to die, a lethal injection. For many people this is an unimaginable, nightmare scenario.
Most of us will not experience the cruel reality of seeing a child’s health deteriorate as a result of a terminal illness. But some Belgian paediatricians who have say children should be allowed to ask to end their lives, if they cannot be relieved of their physical symptoms.
“Rarely – but it happens – there are children we try to treat but there is nothing we can do to make them better. Those children must have the right to decide about their own end of life,” says Dr Gerlant van Berlaer, a paediatrician at UZ Hospital Brussels.
He and 16 other Belgian paediatricians signed an open letter in November petitioning senators to vote for the child euthanasia bill.
A senator who voted against the bill, Christian Democrat Els Van Hoof, thinks it is based on a misplaced idea of self-determination – that everyone has the right to make decisions not only about how they live, but also about how they die. She disagrees, and fought successfully, with a group of other senators, to restrict the scope of the bill to children with terminal illness suffering unbearable physical pain.
“In the beginning they presented a law that included mentally ill children,” she says. “During the debate, supporters of euthanasia talked about children with anorexia, children who are tired of life – so how far does it go?”
In the case of adult euthanasia, she fears a “slippery slope” is already in evidence. The 2002 law governing euthanasia allows adults to choose to end their lives, if they:
- are competent and conscious
- repeatedly make the request
- are suffering unbearably – physically or mentally – as a result of a serious and incurable disorder
But two cases of euthanasia that hit the headlines in Belgium and internationally in 2013 left Van Hoof deeply troubled.