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Belgium first to give children right to die

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Belgium has become first country in the world to extend the right to request assisted death to terminally ill children of any age after removing age restrictions on existing euthanasia laws.

Belgium’s parliament approved – by a 86 to 44 vote majority – to change 2002 euthanasia legislation to allow children experiencing “unbearable physical suffering” to request that their lives be ended.

Under the new law, approved following months of passionate debate, euthanasia can only be provided for children who are “in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased, and which will cause death in the short-term”.

In addition, the child must have “a capacity of discernment, and be conscious at the moment of the request”.

Counselling would be required by doctors and a psychiatrist or psychologist, and the request would also have to have the support of the child’s parents to be valid.

In neighbouring Netherlands, laws have for several years legalised euthanasia in special cases for gravely ill children 12 years or older, but Belgium will become the first country with no age restriction.

The new law was adopted despite vigorous objections from church groups and some doctors. Among their concerns are that the change risks trivialising death, and could be particularly problematic when offered as an option to troubled teenagers.

Sponsors of the amendment believe its use will be limited, amounting to just a handful of cases a year.

But a group of 160 paediatricians opposed to giving children the right to die have objected to many aspects of the legislation, including its provisions regarding the mental capacity of children requesting euthanasia.

“In practice, there is no objective method for determining whether a child is gifted with the ability of discernment and judgment,” the paediatricians said. “This is actually a largely subjective assessment and subject to influences.”

They warned that allowing euthanasia for children would create unbearable stress for carers and relatives.

“The care of seriously ill children is already complex enough. In such circumstances, it is even more difficult for medical staff and the family to be further faced with a particularly difficult ethical choice. The extension of the law to children will only increase their distress and stress.”

But another group of paediatricians, who support the change, said children were “perfectly capable” of deciding to end their life.

“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,” the group said.

In Belgium, 1432 people were euthanased in 2012, a 25 per cent increase from the previous year.

Adrian Rollins