Belgian MPs due to vote on child euthanasia

Chemotherapy - file pic Heavy sedation can be used to relieve acute pain, opponents of the bill argue

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Belgium's MPs are expected to vote on whether to extend a euthanasia law to terminally-ill children.

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.

The lower house is likely to back the bill, correspondents say.

To become legal, it then needs to be signed by the king, making Belgium the first country in the world to remove any age limit on the practice.

The signature of the legislation by King Philippe is seen by analysts as a formality.

In the Netherlands, Belgium's northern neighbour, euthanasia is legal for children over the age of 12, if there is parental consent.

Under the Dutch conditions, a patient's request for euthanasia can be fulfilled by a doctor if the request is "voluntary and well-considered" and the patient is suffering unbearably, with no prospect of improvement.

The Belgian proposal has already passed a number of legal hurdles, and appears to have wide support across Belgium, the BBC's Duncan Crawford in Brussels reports.

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No-one can tell how many children might ask to die if Belgium's euthanasia bill for children becomes law ”

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

Doctors' letter

On the eve of the expected vote, lawmakers clashed sharply in parliament.

Campaigners against the change said vulnerable children could be put at risk, as they were not capable of making such a difficult decision.

Leaders of Belgium's Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities voiced "great concern about the risk" of making euthanasia "routine".

Christian Brotcorne, head of a French-speaking centrist group in parliament, asked "what will happen if the parents disagree with each other, or if the psychiatrist believes the child is incapable of understanding the situation?"

Meanwhile, supporters argued that it would allow terminally-ill children to be relieved from endless pain. They base their arguments on the human right to a dignified death.

A protester in Belgium (11 Feb 2014) Anti-bill protesters argue the law has led to 6,000 deaths and no prosecutions

The bill - which was already backed by the Senate in December - stipulates a number of caveats on euthanasia:

  • It says the patient must be conscious of their decision and understand the meaning of euthanasia
  • The patient must have made multiple requests to die
  • 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

Last 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.

Philippe Mahoux, leader of the Socialist group in the Senate and sponsor of the bill, has described it as "the ultimate gesture of humanity".

"The scandal is that children will die from disease," he says. "The scandal is not to try and avoid the pain of the children in that situation."

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

Most adults opting for euthanasia were over 60 and had incurable cancer.

Opponents warn that the euthanasia bill risks allowing children with anorexia or severe depression to end their lives.

Christian Democrat Els Van Hoof fears a "slippery slope" is already in evidence in adult euthanasia cases, citing as an example a transsexual who asked to die after a series of failed sex-change operations.

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