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Palliative care for children in the birthplace of euthanasia will likely soon include the option of a lethal injection.
BY CELESTE McGOVERN
BRUSSELS — King Philippe of Belgium, a father of four, is expected to sign a bill that would allow terminally ill children with a “capacity of discernment” to request a lethal injection or drink of barbiturate drugs with the consent of their parents.
On Feb. 13, the Belgian Parliament voted 86-44 to allow euthanasia of children in the once heavily Catholic, now mostly secular, European country. If the monarch signs the law, Belgium will be the world’s first country to have no age barrier to euthanasia.
When the amendment passed, a man in the public gallery shouted “murderers” in French. Protesters gathered outside the legislature in Brussels last week and held prayer vigils ahead of the vote.
“The law says adolescents cannot make important decisions on economic or emotional issues, but, suddenly, they’ve become able to decide that someone should make them die,” Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, primate of the Catholic Church in Belgium, told one prayer gathering.
Archbishop Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels, the chairman of the Episcopal Conference of Belgium, vigorously opposed the amendment. “We are opening a door that nobody will be able to close,” he told The Associated Press. “There is a risk of very serious consequences in the long term for society and the meaning we give to life, death and the freedom of human beings.”
Advocates of the bill said that it would be used only in the rarest circumstances and be strictly controlled, requiring that a child be terminally ill, make repeated and “conscious” requests for euthanasia and have parental consent.
The original bill extended the right to parents to decide for their children, and debaters openly discussed euthanasia for children with anorexia and those who were tired of life, according to Christian Democrat Sen. Els van Hoof, who voted against the measure in December, when it passed the senate by a vote of 50-17.
One poll put public support for the bill at 75%, and 16 Belgian pediatricians signed an open letter in November petitioning senators to vote in favor of child euthanasia.
Opposition From Pediatricians
But more than 170 pediatricians signed an open letter objecting to the extension of euthanasia to minors, saying there is no objective way to measure a child’s “discernment” and that modern medicine is capable of alleviating end-of-life suffering without resorting to killing.
The amendment was introduced by the majority Socialist Party and primarily opposed by the Christian Democrats. “There’s no question here of imposing euthanasia on anyone, on any child, on any family, but to give the possibility to the child not to suffer endlessly,” Karine Lalieux, Socialist member of Parliament, said during the debate on the legislation ahead of the vote.
“Just put yourself in the position of that pediatrician,” Flemish Christian Democrat Sonja Becq remarked during the debate. “Does this law give you the security that there will be no gray area any longer? No, you don’t have that. The pediatricians don’t have it, the parents don’t have it, and the terminally ill children don’t have it. That is the reason, colleagues, why we will vote against it.”
Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, and the number of cases has risen year after year since then — from 24 cases in 2002 to 1,342 cases in 2012, according to the commission that administers the program nationally.
Like the child-euthanasia law, the legislation was initially implemented to be used only with the strictest conditions: to be undertaken only by those suffering “unbearable and incurable suffering.” Two doctors were required to sign off on the case, and a third was needed if the patient requesting euthanasia was “non-terminal.”
But critics of the system see one that is driven and self-policed by champions of suicide rights. Euthanasia-rights activist Dr. Wim Distelmans, an oncologist, palliative-care specialist and professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is the co-chair of the Euthanasia Commission — a panel of doctors, lawyers and interested parties that oversees the law. His panel has not asked prosecutors to examine a single case among the 6,945 registered deaths by euthanasia in Belgium between 2002 and 2012.
Yet, while cases are not investigated internally, some have met with shock and criticism internationally. Last year, for example, Distelmans was the doctor who assessed the psychological suffering of 45-year-old deaf twin brothers, Marc and Eddie Verbessem, and approved their death by lethal injection on the grounds that they were frightened of going blind after they were diagnosed with a rare form of progressive glaucoma.
Doctors at another hospital had reportedly turned the brothers’ request down, stating, “If any blind or deaf are allowed to euthanize, we are far from home.”
Distelmans was also the doctor who obliged Nancy Verhelst, a 44-year-old transsexual who sought euthanasia by lethal injection in a state hospital to end her “unbearable psychological suffering” last year, following disappointment with a sex-change surgery to make her into a man known as “Nathan.”
Tom Mortier, a Belgian chemist, wrote a column in Montreal's The Gazette in December describing how euthanasia is hardly the “serene family gathering, full of peace and reconciliation, which euthanasia supporters gush about.”
Mortier’s wife received a call the day after his mother was euthanized at University Hospital in Brussels for her depression. It was the first time he learned of it. Distelmans had given the lethal injection.
Some say the child-euthanasia law will just extend the attack on vulnerable patients to the very youngest and is a first step in the direction of non-voluntary euthanasia and infanticide.
“It’s no longer a slippery slope, more a quagmire, into which good ethics, good palliative care, compassion and true mercy have all been sucked,” human-rights activist Lord David Alton of England told the Register this week. “You begin by saying you will only ever authorize lethal injections on a tiny number of terminally ill patients and end up with laws that take the lives of thousands with, and then without, their consent. That is now the position in both Belgium and Holland.”
‘Race to the Bottom’
Alistair Thompson, a spokesman for the U.K.’s anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing, called it a “race to the bottom,” but he also said the law is so horrifying that it is “actually damaging the campaigns for euthanasia in countries where there is no law.”
Some champions of “mercy killing” are trying to distance themselves from the Belgian legislation.
“The law change being debated in Belgium, to allow the option of euthanasia to terminally ill minors, is far broader than anything Dignity in Dying campaigns for and broader than the U.K. public would want,” Michael Charouneau, press spokesman for the pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying, said in an email to the Register. “It is up to other countries to decide how they legislate for this issue, but Dignity in Dying is clear that we only want a law which permits assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in the U.K.”
However, debate over the Belgian law change has emboldened other euthanasia advocates to start calling for similar legislation. British retired general practitioner and euthanasia campaigner Michael Irwin, who has helped people to die at Dignitas clinics in Switzerland, said in a radio debate on Feb. 14 that the killing of children is already happening in the U.K.
“It has happened in this country, very quietly,” he said. “I know of one or two children over the last few years.”
Later, Irwin defiantly told the London Mirror, “If the police ask me who the pediatricians are, I’ll say, ‘Sorry, chum, I can’t tell you.’”
Commenting on Irwin’s remarks, Lord Alton said, “No doctor can be both killer and physician. 'Care' and 'kill' can never be used as synonyms.”
As for the Belgian law, he appealed to King Philippe: “A previous Belgian king once refused to put his name to the law authorizing the killing of the unborn; his successor should consider doing the same for children now facing death by lethal injection.”
Register correspondent Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.