The Belgian parliament has passed a bill that extends the right to euthanasia to children under 18, making the country the first to completely lift age restrictions on euthanasia to minors.
On Thursday, the lower house of parliament adopted the controversial legislation by 86 votes in favor, 44 against and with 12 abstentions.
The adoption of the ground-breaking legislation followed approval by the Senate last December.
The bill would extend the “right to die” to those under the age of 18 only under certain strict conditions, including parental consent and a requirement that any minor desiring euthanasia demonstrate a “capacity for discernment” to a psychiatrist and psychologist.
The lawmakers clashed sharply over the bill. Proponents of the law say it should be widened to minors so as to help children in pain die as a question of mercy.
“We aren’t speaking about death, we are speaking about the way to die,” said Philippe Mahoux, a Socialist Party senator and the bill’s main sponsor.
“What we are giving them is the possibility to die with dignity, without suffering, without intolerable pain,” he noted.
Opponents, largely members of centrist Christian-leaning parties, say minors are not capable of such a drastic and irreversible decision.
“Minors decide more impulsively than adults and they don’t have the same perspective of short-term and long-term decisions,” said Els van Hoof, a lawmaker from the Christian Democratic and Flemish party.
“Their brains aren’t as developed on an emotional, moral or cognitive level as an adult, and they are more depending on the influence of authority, and authority in this case would be the doctors or the parents,” van Hoof pointed out.
“It’s too high a risk to leave this decision in the hands of children,” she added.
The euthanasia bill will go to Belgium’s monarch, King Philippe, to be signed into law. The king is not expected to oppose the measure.
Over 160 pediatricians also joined the opponents, asking lawmakers to postpone the vote. They said the bill was unnecessary and not prepared well.
“Pain can be eased nowadays, there’s been huge progress in palliative care,” said cancer specialist Nadine Francotte, who signed a petition to lawmakers, urging more time for reflection before any decision is made.
Belgium, one of the few countries that has allowed euthanasia, first passed legislation legalizing euthanasia in 2002.
It is the second country after the Netherlands to allow mercy-killing for children, and the first to lift all age restrictions. The Netherlands allows euthanasia for children over 12, if they are “conscious”, and if equipped with “a capacity of discernment.”
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