Belgium: Lawmakers back allowing minors to request euthanasia

A nurse puts a respiratory mask on a baby at the Queen Fabiola Children's Hospital in Brussels on November 25, 2013.

Story highlights

  • A Belgian Senate panel votes in favor of a law extending euthanasia rights to children
  • The bill must clear other hurdles before it becomes law
  • If passed, under-18s could request euthanasia only under stringent conditions
  • Belgium passed a law allowing euthanasia for adults in 2002

A controversial bill that would extend the right to request euthanasia to children suffering terminal illnesses and adults with dementia cleared a vote in a Belgian Senate committee Wednesday.

The panel voted 13-4 to allow minors to seek euthanasia under certain conditions, the communications director for the Senate, Patrick Peremans, told CNN.

The vote is one stage in a legislative process -- the bill must clear other hurdles before it becomes law.

Belgium passed legislation in 2002 allowing voluntary euthanasia for adults.

Changes to the law now being considered by lawmakers would allow under-18s to request an end to their life only under stringent guidelines.

Dr. Kenneth Chambarae, who is part of the end-of-life research group at Brussels' Free University, specializing in the impact of legalized euthanasia, said the bill explicitly states that it would be possible only for competent minors suffering unbearable physical pain from a serious physical illness without prospect of improvement to request euthanasia. This is different from adults, who can also request it if they are suffering psychologically.

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Chambarae argues the debate in Belgium is more one of principle than anything else -- that very few children would ever choose euthanasia but that the law now discriminates against them.

    The bill will now be introduced in the Senate, where it will be debated in a plenary meeting by all senators, Peremans said. If the bill is voted against, this would mean the end of the measure.

    If it passes, the bill would then be transferred to the House of Representatives for debate. If approved there, it would go to the king to be signed into law.

    'Grey zone'

    Earlier this month, 16 pediatricians wrote an open letter in two national newspapers demanding an extension of the practice.

    Among them was Gerland van Berlaer, also from Brussels' Free University.

    "Doctors do terminate lives of children as well as adults," he told CNN. "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."

    Dr. Philip Nitschke, director of pro-euthanasia group Exit International, told CNN the Belgians are to be applauded for their progressive thinking on a very difficult issue.

    However, critics question whether children are capable of making an informed decision on whether to end their own lives.

    The Netherlands already allows children over the age of 12 to request euthanasia with the consent of their parents. Since the law was introduced in 2002, only five children have chosen to die that way.

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