Protests as Belgium set to legalise euthanasia for children

Wednesday February 12 2014

Professor Stefaan Van Gool of UZ Leuven university shows a map during a press conference of various paediatricians on the expansion of the euthanasia law for minors, in Brussels, on February 11, 2014. The bill, due to be vote this week, would allow minors to ask for euthanasia if they are terminally ill, if they are in great pain and if there is no treatment to alleviate their distress. Photo/AFP

Professor Stefaan Van Gool of UZ Leuven university shows a map during a press conference of various paediatricians on the expansion of the euthanasia law for minors, in Brussels, on February 11, 2014. The bill, due to be vote this week, would allow minors to ask for euthanasia if they are terminally ill, if they are in great pain and if there is no treatment to alleviate their distress. Photo/AFP 

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Belgium faced fresh protests Wednesday as its parliament debated whether to extend a ground-breaking euthanasia law to terminally-ill children, making it only the second nation to allow minors the right to die.

"To see a sick child die is revolting, it is not just," said Socialist parliamentarian Karine Lalieux as MP crossed swords on the ethically tough question that will be put to the vote on Thursday.

"But euthanasia doesn't consist in killing a person but in freeing them from suffering," she said. "Every child, every family must be allowed the choice to deliver a child from pain."

After months of public debate, surveys show Belgians broadly in support of draft legislation widening the country's 2002 euthanasia law to children faced with "unbearable physical suffering".

But days after the Catholic church staged "a day of fasting and prayer" in protest, some 160 pediatricians Wednesday petitioned lawmakers to postpone the vote on the grounds it was both ill-prepared and unnecessary.

"Pain can be eased nowadays, there's been huge progress in palliative care," said Nadine Francotte, a cancer specialist in the city of Liege who signed the petition.

Painkillers "enable a child to live to the last moment" while euthanasia drugs lead to un-natural death, Francotte said.

Not so, retorted Brussels palliative specialist Dominique Lossignol of the Bordet cancer clinic.

"We do not have control over all types of pain, either physical nor moral," he told AFP. "We doctors have been asking for an extension of the law for years."

"Children are capable of taking such a decision, specially those who are chronically ill," Lossignol added.

If adopted as expected, the legislation will make Belgium the second country after the Netherlands to allow incurably sick children to end their lives.

While the Dutch law, the world's first euthanasia bill, enables mercy-killing for gravely ill patients 12 years or older, Belgium will be the first to lift all age restrictions.

The draft bill states a child must have "a capacity of discernment and be conscious at the moment of the request".

The minor must also "be in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short-term".

Counselling by doctors and a psychiatrist or psychologist is required, as is approval by the parents.

- Euthanasia 'trivialises death': Church -

While Church leaders argue that extending euthanasia to the young "risks trivialising" death, the sponsor of the legislation, Socialist senator Philippe Mahoux, sees it as "the ultimate gesture of humanity."

"It is illness and the death of children that is scandalous", not euthanasia, Mahoux, himself a doctor, told AFP.

In a first vote in the Senate in December, the proposal won a resounding 71 votes in favour, with 17 against and four abstentions.

Based on statements from doctors admitting to have helped minors die, sponsors expect no more than a handful of requests each year but say that legalising the practice will save doctors from potential criminal prosecution.

In December, a group of pediatricians in favour of the legislation said minors were perfectly capable of opting for euthanasia.

"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."

While polls show as many as three quarters of Belgians backing the proposal, there was a surge of concern last year when a 44-year-old in distress after a failed sex change operation was euthanised on psychological grounds in a highly-publicised case.

Belgium logged a record 1,432 cases of euthanasia in 2012, up 25 percent. They represented two percent of all deaths.

Luxembourg also approved euthanasia in 2009, but for adults only. In Switzerland, doctors can assist a patient seeking to die, but euthanasia itself is illegal.