COMMENTARYWhen a child is euthanized, society has failed

By Robert Clarke Posted on: | 29 November 2016

The Former Head of the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics has written that ‘Belgium stands, ethically, at the top of the world.’ It is difficult to reconcile that boast with the recent report of the Euthanasia Control Commission. Never before have more people died at the hands of doctors. In 2015, 2022 intentional killings were officially recorded. This year in October, the first child has been euthanized under a ‘compassionate’ law that has been described as the world's most liberal euthanasia regime.
 
In 2002, Belgium enacted a law which allows a person who is ‘in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated’ to be euthanized by a doctor on that individual's request.
 
In February 2014, the country went a step further and legalized child euthanasia. It means there is now no age limit for euthanasia, with the only requirements being that the child understand what euthanasia means, has the consent of their parent or guardian, and that death is expected in the short term.
 
The care of seriously ill children is complex. But introducing euthanasia does not simplify things - quite the opposite. Allowing euthanasia is more than just adding an option; it completely upends the relationship between patient and doctor. It tells children that there might come a point when their life is no longer worth living, and it compromises hope.
 
The situation in Belgium is a tour de force in the erosion of human dignity at the altar of radical personal autonomy. The slippery slope is on full public display. It is no longer a hypothetical argument that, in years to come, people say, ‘look, it didn't happen.’ We've had those years and we now see the tragic consequences. The ‘exception’ of euthanasia now accounts for more than 5 euthanasia cases per day in Belgium. And that may yet be the tip of the iceberg. Studies show that half of all euthanasia cases are not reported to the Commission which was set up to ensure the law is complied with. The reasons doctors have given for failing to report include that it was ‘too much of an administrative burden’ (17.9%), and that there was uncertainty that all due care requirements had been met (11.9%).
 
Belgium has set itself on a trajectory that - at best - implicitly tells its most vulnerable that their lives are not worth living. These laws are bad news for the elderly, for the sick, and for the disabled. It should come as no surprise that they are opposed by every major disability rights group. These are the very people we should be caring for, and instead, we send a message that we think it's OK for them to kill themselves.
 
Minors had originally been included in the Belgian proposal in 2002 but were removed in the face of political opposition. The tragic results of the Belgian experiment should have been enough to confirm that decision. And yet instead we see a continual push for a widening of the scope of the law. In Belgium, 15% of those euthanized do not have a terminal illness and an increasing number suffer from mental disorders.
 
But when people are being euthanized for being ‘tired of life’, and with a constant push for more, this is not what compassion looks like. Our word ‘compassion’ comes from Latin and means to ‘suffer with.’ A compassionate society invests in palliative care, it looks after its vulnerable, and it comes alongside them when they need it the most. When a child is euthanized, we have lost the right to call ourselves compassionate.

Robert Clarke

Director of European Advocacy

Robert E. Clarke serves as legal counsel and director of European advocacy for ADF International at its office in Vienna, Austria.

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