Belgium is set to debate this week whether or not it will extend its laws allowing euthanasia to include children and those suffering from long-term “diseases of the brain” like Alzheimer’s.
The country already has some of the most relaxed rules in the world when it comes to helping people who are suffering to take their own lives, and lawmakers could be about to push those boundaries even further.
Since 2002, any adult in Belgium who is signed off by two doctors as undergoing “unbearable psychological or physical suffering” can consent to be killed, most commonly by an injection of a lethal combination of drugs. Assisted suicides reportedly now account for around 1 per cent of all deaths.
Under the bill being considered, this could be extended to those under 18 if they requested it, their parents gave their consent, and where an expert psychologist deemed the child to fully understand the implications of their decision.
“This is very important because one child that suffers is one too many,” Jean-Jacques De Gucht, MP for the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats party, told the Sunday Times.
“It’s about giving people the right to choose how and when to end their life in dignity,” he said.
According to the newspaper, a recent poll suggested that more than two-thirds of the Belgian public back the new laws.
Under the proposals, medically-assisted euthanasia would also be offered as an option to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Once diagnosed and while still lucid, they would be able to consent to being killed when their illness progressed to the point where doctors decided they were no longer interacting with society – even if on the surface they appeared to be happy and well.
In Europe only Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have laws which allow for euthanasia in extreme circumstances. In Switzerland and Germany, doctors can prepare the necessary lethal injection but the patient must administer it themselves.
Supporters of the euthanasia bill say it would simply be bringing under legal control something which already happens anyway. Studies have shown that, with terminally ill children whose parents are begging for their suffering to be brought to an end, doctors have been steadily increasing doses of painkillers until they reach lethal amounts.
Dr Dominique Biarent, who runs the intensive care unit at a Brussels children’s hospital, told the Wall Street Journal that this does happen, though rarely, and only ever at the initiative of the child’s parents.
“Our goal is to cure,” she said. “It never happens that we're pushing parents. We never say, ‘This morning we're doing euthanasia—yippee!’ It’s a terrible process.”
The Belgian law has come under renewed international focus when a man chose to die last week after he said a failed sex change operation turned him into “a monster”.