Last week, the Belgian parliament passed a bill allowing euthanasia for terminally ill children without any age limit, by 86 votes to 44, with 12 abstentions. Twelve years after Belgium first legalised euthanasia, it may now be requested by terminally ill children who are in great pain, albeit with parental consent. Nearly three quarters of Belgians polled indicated that they supported the move. Indeed, the discussion was considered so uncontentious that the health minister did not bother to turn up to the debate. Such a step takes Belgium even further in euthanasia policy than its northern neighbour, the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal for children over the age of 12, if there is parental consent.
Much of the press, like most Belgians, treated the decision as a quiet confirmation of Belgium’s liberal ethic. ‘For the first time since 1830 we have evolved to being ethically progressive leaders. We can be quite proud of that’, Belgian daily De Morgen proclaimed. However, not all Belgians were happy with the decision. Over 170 paediatricians questioned the wisdom of the move in an open letter published last week urging parliament to postpone its decision. Dr Stefaan Van Gool, a paediatrician at the University of Leuven, questioned whether such a move is necessary. ‘I have never had [a request to euthanise a child] so I don’t see the urgency’, he told the Independent, adding that he also feared that vulnerable children could become victims of misinterpretations of the law: ‘If one opens the door, you have no control any more of what is going through this door.’
Further afield, the press generally condemned the move. US publisher Steve Forbes wrote in an opinion piece last month: ‘We are on the malignantly slippery slope to becoming a society like that envisioned by Nazi Germany, one in which “undesirables” are disposed of like used tissue.’ Christian televangelist Pat Robertson saw the law as a symptom of a broader brutality evident, he said, in Belgium’s colonial past in Africa. ‘Belgium has allowed the killing on demand of terminally ill children and has headed for the ethical abyss. A state which allows something like this is a failing state’, read a column in the conservative German daily Die Welt.
Looking more closely at this development, it becomes clear that Belgium’s new law neither marks a descent into Nazi eugenics nor colonial brutality. Neither is it a matter-of-fact extension of existing law. The effects are unlikely to be practical; as the paediatricians noted in their open letter, most doctors never come across such a case. There is certainly no crying need for this law, but neither is it likely that very many gross abuses will take place.
So where has it come from? First, it is the result of a few moral entrepreneurs foisting their agenda on to a populace that seems morally uncertain about the implications of this move. Quite clearly, those who seek to broaden the categories of those who qualify for euthanasia push upon an open door. Belgians may not have collectively shrugged about the euthanasia of a 43-year-old transsexual who was granted his wish to be killed because he did not like the results of his surgery, or the twin brothers who died because they were losing their sight, but most appeared uncertain about what was the right thing to do faced with such a dilemma. Contrary to what advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia elsewhere claim, Belgium stands as an example of how a slippery slope leads, not to individuals pressured into dying, but to an inevitable expansion of those categories deemed appropriate for death on request.