Belgian Senate votes to extend euthanasia to children

Jean-Jacques De Gucht of the  Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats. Jean-Jacques De Gucht of the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats spoke in favour of the bill

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The Belgian Senate has voted in favour of extending its euthanasia law to terminally-ill children.

The Senate voted 50-17 in favour of the legislation, which is opposed by religious leaders in Belgium.

The bill seeks to allow children to ask for euthanasia if their illness is terminal, they are in great pain and there is no available treatment.

It will now go before the lower house of parliament, where correspondents say it is likely to be approved.

Belgium passed a law decriminalising euthanasia for terminally-ill people over the age of 18 in 2002.

The latest bill proposes to make Belgium the first country in the world to remove any age limit on the practice.

Start Quote

There is no age for suffering and, next to that, it's very important that we have a legal framework for the doctors who are confronted with this demand today”

End Quote Jean-Jacques de Gucht Belgian Senator

But it stipulates a number of caveats on euthanasia:

  • It says the patient must be conscious of their decision and understand the meaning of euthanasia
  • The request must have been approved by the child's parents and medical team
  • Their illness must be terminal
  • They must be in great pain, with no available treatment to alleviate their distress

In November, 16 paediatricians urged lawmakers in Belgium to approve the legislation in an open letter.

"Experience shows us that in cases of serious illness and imminent death, minors develop very quickly a great maturity, to the point where they are often better able to reflect and express themselves on life than healthy people," said their statement.

During the Senate debate, supporters of the bill said it would empower doctors and terminally-ill children to make a difficult decision.

"There is no age for suffering and, next to that, it's very important that we have a legal framework for the doctors who are confronted with this demand today and for the minors, for the capable minors, who are suffering today, and who I think should have the freedom to choose how they cope with their suffering," said Senator Jean-Jacques de Gucht, of the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats.

But opponents in the Senate said children were not capable of making such a decision.

"We think that children don't understand the character of death, they don't understand the irreversibility of death," said Els Van Hoof of the Christian Democratic and Flemish party. "They are also influenced by authority, by their parents, by the medical team. So, to take a decision which is a huge decision about their death we don't think that they are capable of doing it."

In 2012, Belgium recorded 1,432 cases of euthanasia in 2012, up by 25% from 2011.

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