Belgium approves euthanasia for terminally-ill children

European state becomes first in the world to remove age limit on practice

A screen showing the votes of the Belgian Chamber (parliament) members on the euthanasia law for terminally-ill children, in Brussels. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

A screen showing the votes of the Belgian Chamber (parliament) members on the euthanasia law for terminally-ill children, in Brussels. Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 19:19

Belgium today voted to extend the country’s euthanasia laws to terminally-ill children, becoming the first country in the world to remove an age limit on the practice.

The vote in the Belgian Parliament followed months of public debate on the contentious issue.

Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002.

The new law will permit under-18s to request euthanasia if their illness is terminal, they are in great pain and there is no available treatment.

Parental consent will be required, while the child will have to be assessed by a psychologist or medical practitioner.

today’s decision by the lower house in the Belgian parliament had been expected – the upper house backed the Bill by 51 to 17 last year, while the justice committee also supported the proposed legislation.

The law was backed by 86 members of parliament with 44 against and 12 abstentions.

The governing socialist and liberal parties in the coalition government voted in favour of the proposal, with the Christian Democrats voting against.

The Bill will now pass to King Philippe to be signed into law.>According to the bill, the decision to administer euthanasia would only be made in the case of “constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short-term.”

The three Benelux countries - Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – are the only countries in the European Union to permit euthanasia. The Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise the practice in 2002, followed closely by Belgium.

While the Netherlands currently permits euthanasia for children over the age of 12, Belgium will be the first country in the world to remove any age limit on the practice.

Polls shows that most Belgians back the proposal. In December, a prominent group of paediatricians urged lawmakers to approve the legislation, but earlier this week a letter signed by 160 Belgian paediatricians asked parliamentarians to reflect on the issue further, arguing that children lacked “mature discernment” to choose euthanasia.

Religious groups and other medical representatives have strongly criticised the proposal to liberalise the law.

Official figures show that there were 1,432 cases of euthanasia in Belgium in 2012, representing about 2 per cent of all deaths.

A number of controversial cases over the last few years has focused international attention on Belgium’s euthanasia policy. The prominent Flemish author Hugo Claus chose euthanasia after being diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2008. Last year, two 45 year old twins, Marc and Eddy Verbessem who were deaf, died by euthanasia after they found out they would lose their sight.

Belgium has one of the most liberal euthanasia laws in the world, permitting it in cases where a person is not terminally ill. The new law to extend euthanasia to children will only apply to those who are terminally ill.