Euthanasia for children in Belgium

Last year I wrote about the euthanasia of a 44 year old Belgian transsexual, Nathan Verhelst, which you can find in my blog here. Although Belgium first legalised the right to euthanasia for adults in 2002, recently its Senate voted to extend the law to children who are terminally ill, and suffering unbearable physical pain. Many Belgians support this new draft bill as they believe those children must have the right to decide about their own end of life, but there are also opponents against it, who see it as a slippery slope.

Paediatrician and supporter of the bill, Dr Gerlant Van Berlaer, says, ‘We are not playing God – these are lives that will end anyway. Their natural end might be miserable or very painful or horrifying, and they might have seen a lot of friends in institutions or hospitals die of the same disease. And if they say, “I don’t want to die this way, I want to do it my way,” and that is the only thing we can do for them as doctors, I think we should be able to do it.’

However, Christian Democrat senator, Els Van Hoof, disagrees, and fought successfully to restrict 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?’

You can read more about it in this BBC magazine article here. You can also hear more about it by listening to BBC Radio 4′ s The Report – Right To Die programme here.

It certainly raises some difficult ethical questions, and I can understand why euthanasia is illegal in Britain. However, in the Netherlands, euthanasia is already legal for children over the age of 12, if they have the consent of their parents, and if the Belgian bill is passed in the lower house of parliament, Belgium will be the first nation in the world to lift all age restrictions. 

 

Ethics of Euthanasia

This week I was shocked to read a BBC news article about the euthanasia of a 44 year old Belgian transsexual, who was so unhappy with his sex change that he wanted to die. Two doctors made the necessary decisions that he was within his rights to choose euthanasia, saying: ‘Patients must be capable of deciding for themselves. They must be conscious and have to give a “voluntary, considered and repeated” request to die.’

Nathan Verhelst was legally killed on September 30th. I wonder if he might have felt differently in a few months, if he had had more counselling and psychological help.

One of the things I found particularly shocking about this case was that it didn’t make the headlines. In Belgium, euthanasia is not very controversial and MPs there are even now deciding whether to lower the age limit to make euthanasia available to under-eighteens. You can read more about that in The Independent news article here.

I believe that this could be the start of a very slippery slope. Can a child make the decision whether it is better for them to live or die? Do the child’s parents have the right to decide to kill their child, even if it is for humane reasons?

It is questions like these which make me glad that euthanasia is illegal in this country. I feel especially strongly about it, having visited the death camps at Auschwitz, where euthanasia was taken to horrifying extremes.

Since the Harold Shipman case, there are now much better regulations in place to ensure that doctors can’t kill their patients, and doctors have to be revalidated every 5 years to ensure they are doing the best for their patients.

As a doctor, I would always want to do the best for my patients without causing them harm. However, I know that I shall have to make some difficult ethical decisions, such as whether or not to withdraw treatment for a terminally ill patient (Extraordinary medical care), or whether to give a drug to relieve pain, knowing that it might cause the patient to die sooner (the Doctrine of Double Effect).

You can find out more on this BBC ethics website which sets out the arguments for and against euthanasia and assisted suicide really clearly.