Belgium minor first to be granted euthanasia

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People take part in the March4Life (Marche pour la Vie - Mars voor het Leven) demonstration, on March 30, 2014, in Brussels.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Belgium is the only country that permits euthanasia without age restrictions

A terminally ill 17-year-old has become the first minor to be helped to die in Belgium since age restrictions on euthanasia requests were removed two years ago, officials say.

The head of the federal euthanasia commission said the teenager was "suffering unbearable physical pain".

Belgium is the only country that allows minors of any age to choose euthanasia.

They must have rational decision-making capacity and be in the final stages of a terminal illness.

The parents of those under 18 must also give their consent.

Euthanasia commission head Wim Distelmans said the teenager was "nearly 18". He said doctors used "palliative sedation", which involves putting patients into an induced coma, as part of the process,

"Fortunately there are very few children who are considered [for euthanasia] but that does not mean we should refuse them the right to a dignified death," he told the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper.

Mr Distelmans told Reuters news agency the case had been reported to his committee by a local doctor last week.

The case involved a Dutch-speaking patient, reports public broadcaster RTBF.

The Netherlands also allows euthanasia for minors, but they must be aged over 12 years old.

Belgium lifted the age restrictions in 2014. The law passed by parliament said the child would have to be terminally ill, face "unbearable physical suffering" and make repeated requests to die before euthanasia is considered.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Belgian Paralympian Marieke Vervoort, who suffers from an incurable degenerative muscle disease, says she will choose euthanasia, but not yet.

Many people, including church leaders and some paediatricians, questioned whether children would be able to make such a difficult choice.

Senator Jean-Jacques De Gucht said he was proud the legislation had passed.

He said having the possibility to ask about euthanasia "makes a big difference to many people".

Where is assisted dying permitted?

  • The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg permit euthanasia and assisted suicide
  • Switzerland permits assisted suicide if the person assisting acts unselfishly
  • Colombia permits euthanasia
  • California last year joined the US states of Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana in permitting assisted dying
  • Canada passed laws allowing doctor-assisted dying in June of this year

How old must the patient be?

Only the Netherlands and Belgium permit euthanasia for patients under the age of 18.

In the Netherlands, a competent patient between the ages of 16 and 18 may request euthanasia or assisted suicide. The parent or guardian does not have a veto, but must be consulted. Competent patients aged between 12 and 16 may also qualify, but only if their parent or guardian consents.

In Belgium, a competent patient under the age of 18 may request euthanasia with parental consent. Additional scrutiny of the child's competence is required, and suffering based on a psychiatric disorder is excluded.

How many people take this option?

The rate of euthanasia in the Netherlands has remained fairly stable at 2.8% of all deaths (in 2010), according to Penney Lewis, Professor of Law at King's College London.

The most recent survey of doctors in the UK was in 2007-08. The rate of euthanasia was reported to be 0.21% of all deaths, and a similar rate has been reported in France (in 2009), even though euthanasia remains illegal in both countries.

In contrast, research carried out in Flanders, Belgium found the rate prior to legalisation was unclear, with separate surveys reporting rates of 0.3% of all deaths in the region (in 2001-02) and 1.1% (in 1998). The rate has risen steadily since legalisation in 2002 to 4.6% of all deaths in the most recent survey in 2013.

What do the different terms mean?

Euthanasia is an intervention undertaken with the intention of ending a life to relieve suffering, for example a lethal injection administered by a doctor

Assisted suicide is any act that intentionally helps another person kill themselves, for example by providing them with the means to do so, most commonly by prescribing a lethal medication

Assisted dying is usually used in the US and the UK to mean assisted suicide for the terminally ill only, as for example in the Assisted Dying Bills recently debated in the UK