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Belgium Votes to Extend Right-to-Die Legislation to Include Disabled Youth

This week, a Belgium Senate Committee voted in favor of a new law that would allow persons with dementia and young persons under the age of 18 with serious disabilities and incurable illness the right to die.  The legislation, which still must clear a number of legal hurdles before becoming law, would allow children suffering intractable pain to request to end their lives under a doctor’s care.

Gerland van Berlaer, from Brussels’ Free University, noted that despite the fact physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in Belgium only in cases where the adult is competent to make the decision on their own, even without the law physicians often choose to aid a patient in death when the patient is dying and must endure pain and suffering in their remaining days.

“Doctors do terminate lives of children as well as adults,” he said. “But today it’s done in a gray zone or in the dark because it’s illegal. And this means that there’s a lot of room to do things the wrong way.”

Under the new law, similar to legislation enacted in the Netherlands in 2002, children under the age of 18 and those with dementia would be allowed to legally request a physician’s support to end their lives potentially bringing the practice out of the shadows.

However, critics of the proposed bill claim that the current right-to-die law is already being misused and should not be expanded to a more vulnerable group of patients.

“There are significant examples of how the current law is being abused and the bracket creep of acceptable reasons for euthanasia continues to grow,” Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition said.

Schadenberg pointed to 25 percent increase in physician-assisted suicide in Belgium in 2012 as evidence that euthanasia must be more limited in Belgium, not extended.

He also insisted that in many cases, euthanasia was already being performed on patients who are not fully informed, a problem that makes extending the law unthinkable.  “The current practice of euthanasia in Belgium appears to have become an easy way to cover-up medical errors,” he said.

Proponents of the law, however, note the fact that since right-to-die laws were extended to minors in the Netherlands, only 5 children under the age of 18 have chosen to terminate their lives.

They also pointed out the law gives more Belgium residents a choice over how they live and die. “We want to provide the freedom of choice, also to minors who are able to make up their own mind,” Jean-Jacques De Gucht, one of the bill’s backers said.

Photo Credit: National Cancer Institute via Wikimedia Commons

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Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.