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Letting a Child Choose to Die; The Ethics of Euthanasia; Syria Peace Talks; Imagine a World

Aired November 27, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Should extremely sick children have the right to choose to die? Children, mind you. It's a question that every parent hopes they will never have to answer. But child euthanasia is a heartbreaking and controversial issue that is now being debated in Belgium. A Senate committee there has voted 13-4 to allow minors to seek euthanasia under certain conditions.

The bill must clear other hurdles before becoming law; but if it does, Belgium will become the first country to remove an age limit for euthanasia, which is illegal for adults in most countries around the world.

Backers say the law will give a merciful way out even for babies suffering from debilitating conditions and legalize a practice that they say is already going on in secret.

Opponents say that it would open the door to unregulated child killing and leave the decision nominally in the hands of people far too young to make it.

The bill will inevitably spark a fierce debate around the world and in a moment, we speak to one of its authors, the Belgian MP, Jean-Jacques De Gucht.

But first, our own Diana Magnay has met some of the parents in Belgium facing this torturous question. And it is incredibly difficult to watch.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There was no medicine that could save Ella-Louise from a rare genetic mutation called Krabbe disease, which destroyed her nervous system. Heavily sedated in these final days of her short 10-month life, no food or water to try and speed up the inevitable.

LINDA VAN ROY, ELLA-LOUISE'S MOTHER: There's a whole period of sedation. You always need to give more and more and more medication. We start asking questions and they say, what's the use of keeping this baby alive.

MAGNAY (voice-over): Linda wishes she could have administered a fatal dose and spared them both the pain of those final days, which is why she's campaign for a change to Belgium's end of life and euthanasia laws.

VAN ROY: We want for those children -- we wanted to be able to talk about euthanasia and to ask those questions and if they really want to stop, this is it. I don't want it anymore that they can have the choice.

MAGNAY (voice-over): Pediatricians like Gerlant van Berlaer say it will simply legalize what happens anyway.

DR. GERLANT VAN BERLAER, FREE UNIVERSITY BRUSSELS: Doctors do terminate lives of children as well as of adults. And but today it's done in -- let's say in a gray zone or in the dark because it's illegal.

MAGNAY (voice-over): But critics question whether children can reasonably decide whether to end their own lives.

Izabela Sacewicz has Huntington's disease. She's just turned 18. In the last few years, she's lost the ability to walk, eat or speak properly. But she can still think for herself.

IVANA SACEWICZ, IZABELA'S MOTHER (from captions): Do you know what euthanasia means?


IVANA SACEWICZ (from captions): No.

Euthanasia means if you are unwell, you are so unhappy that you don't want to stay here, you want to leave, go high above, to God. But if you leave, you leave forever. You can't come back.

What do you think of that? Is it good or is it not good?

IZABELA SACEWICZ (from captions): It's not good.

MAGNAY (voice-over): Her mother, Ivana, struggles to look after both of her children and keep working as a cleaner to keep the money coming in.

IVANA SACEWICZ (from captions): If we had help, you wouldn't think of death for your children.

MAGNAY (voice-over): She thinks the senators inside these walls should focus instead on better support for families like hers, especially as children like Izabela pass into adulthood when her options shrink further.

MAGNAY: One of the main arguments is that this is more a matter of principle than anything else, but only a very small number of children will ever in practice ask to end their lives through euthanasia.

But if you look at the Netherlands, where since 2002 children with parental consent have been allowed to request euthanasia, since then only five children have ever done so -- Diana Magnay, CNN, Brussels, Belgium.


AMANPOUR: A really powerful report and a really powerful question to be debated. As I said, euthanasia, even for adults, is against the law in most of the world. Only Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium allow the practice. And no country has legalized euthanasia for children of any age.

Jean-Jacques De Gucht is the member of Belgium's Parliament who first proposed this bill and he joins me now from Brussels.

Mr. De Gucht, thank you very much for joining me.

Do you believe that this is actually going to become law?

JEAN-JACQUES DE GUCHT, BELGIAN MP: Well, after the votes that we had earlier this day, I think there's a big chance that before the next elections, we'll have the vote on euthanasia for minors, yes.

AMANPOUR: Does it not sound just so terrible when you even say it?

I mean you look at the pictures in that heartbreaking report and you ask yourself, really? Children are going to make that decision for themselves with no age limit? Is that even possible?

DE GUCHT: Well, first of all, we're talking about children who are completely able to make that choice.


AMANPOUR: But how do you -- how do you decide?

DE GUCHT: (INAUDIBLE) and there's also a psychiatric analysis. There is a psychiatric analysis inscribed in the proposition. So if you look at the case of Ella-Louise, who is a very -- is a terrible case, this does not imply by this law. This law is only for minors who are completely able to distinguish the position they're in.

AMANPOUR: Except that there is going to be no age limit. So presumably that also could be fooled (ph).

Let me just show you, we have interesting statistics about where and how people think about this. It is very high, the support for legal suicide in Europe, 87 percent in Germany.

Do you think once these barriers start coming down, you'll see much more of it?

DE GUCHT: I think this proposition and the whole debate on euthanasia is very important for the thing that -- I think it's very important that we give people the right to choose for themselves how they cope with the most difficult part of life, and that's the end of life.

And this is not whether we -- I would hope that no child has to make the decision on whether to end his life or not; but I think it's very important that we give the possibility to a minor who is capable of making that choice, that he can or she can make that choice.

AMANPOUR: But do you not worry that this can be abused? I mean, already Belgium is criticized for its liberal laws in this regard. And actually there has been some who've had assisted suicide simply because, let's say, a sex change operation went wrong. This is not a life-and-death matter.

DE GUCHT: No, that's a case -- and then that's very difficult to discuss that case without knowing the whole discussion. But I think if you look at it, it's very important to have a law because you say that it's -- it makes it possible for abuse. I think that a law just makes it possible to -- but to help the abuses that maybe there are today to help that -- to stop the abuses that we have today and to have a legal framework there where today we were actually -- we have a very gray zone about everything that concerns euthanasia on minors.

AMANPOUR: And as you have said, doctors are, some of them, doing this in any event, assisting in this regard, against the law right now. So you say you want to legalize it.

But what about the mother of the 18-year-old child who is suffering, who clearly said that she didn't want to be euthanized. And the mother said maybe effort could go into actually providing help for parents who have these children who are so ill.

DE GUCHT: What we are suggesting in a proposition is that the doctor, or the medical team, the parents and the minor who ask for euthanasia, go into a dialogue and I think the dialogue is very important and also the psychological help that we can -- that we can provide them if they want to make that choice.


DE GUCHT: And again, I have to say this is giving the possibility to make a choice. It is not about giving euthanasia to everybody who ask it, is giving the possibility to -- for euthanasia to people who are suffering whether they are minor and capable or adult.

AMANPOUR: Mr. De Gucht, thank you very much indeed for joining me. And obviously this will continue to rage on in Belgium. And we're going to get a different view now, and for that we turn to Robert George in the United States. He served on the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics six years ago.

He's got a master's in theology from the Harvard Divinity School and he joins me right now from Princeton, where he is a professor of law.

Welcome to the program. You heard that debate; you heard the anguished decisions the parents in Belgium are now trying to make.

From a bioethics standpoint, where do you come down on this?

ROBERT GEORGE, SERVED ON U.S. PRESIDENT'S COUNCIL ON BIOETHICS: Well, for me, Christiane, it's very clear; we should avoid medicalized killing at all costs. Doctors should not be in the business of killing.

Once we've breached the wall and turned people who are meant to be healers, whose vocation and mission is that of healers, into killers -- and let's be clear; that is what's happening, causing death, deliberately causing death, undoubtedly in circumstances that are quite tragic, but once we cross that line, there simply is no stopping place to that.

The Belgium parliamentarian couldn't give you a very good account of where the stopping place would be. And that's because there simply isn't one.

We must never treat people as burdens or pressure them, which inevitably happens when you create the option of medicalized killing. We may say, well, it's just a choice that they're going to make without any influences. But there will be pressures. We all know that.

AMANPOUR: You say that, but of course there is the situation whereby some people are doing this in any event, some doctors are participating in trying to mercifully end the lives of terminally sick children.

Is it not better to make it legalized, at least, so that it's done humanely?

GEORGE: Oh, no. No, it's not better. What would be better is not to give up, not to abandon patients, to bring care, to ease suffering wherever possible. And we have many, many good techniques and pharmaceutical products and so forth these days to combat terrible pain.

People need to feel as though we're going to be there for them; we're going to care for them; we're not going to abandon them.

And as far as the medical profession, the answer when abuses take place is not to legalize the abuses and suddenly magically turn them into something other than abuses; rather, it's to rebuild the ethic of Hippocratic medicine. The Hippocratic Oath that the foundation of all medicine had an explicit prohibition of causing death in this way, of medicalizing killing.

We need to return to that and rebuild that in the medical profession so doctors won't try to find an easy way out by killing patients, even at their request, but rather will bring care and tell patients they're not burdens.

AMANPOUR: This has obviously been raging in the United States as well, certainly assisted suicide in certain states, some of this is legal.

Can I turn to the fact that you are a Roman Catholic and the pope himself has just come out with a whole new Gospel of Joy, setting out some major reforms?

He obviously actually stayed very close and hewed the line on Catholic doctrine when it comes to right to life.

But what do you make of what he's done in terms of any kind of liberalization or progressiveness in the Catholic Church?

GEORGE: Well, it's a very interesting and I think quite wonderful document. He has labeled in an apostolic exhortation. It's exhorting the Catholic faithful to understand the gospel is a gospel of joy, not as a gospel of burdens, not as a gospel of drudgery but a gospel of joy. And he's of course urged all Catholics to be evangelizers, to be spreading the gospel, not by hectoring people or proselytizing. He rejects that quite explicitly, but by living lives that set examples of the joy of the gospel.

No, and the specific question you asked, Christiane, he has opened a discussion on many issues. As you say, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the church are settled. He doesn't purport to try to reopen those issues. He believes that they're good and right and that's why the church teaches them.

But on a whole range of other issues including the proper conduct of the papacy itself, he's open to conversation. He wants to hear from his brother bishops. He wants to hear from clergy. He wants to hear from faithful men and women who have something to say, something to contribute about how the church should confront the challenges of the contemporary world.

AMANPOUR: Mr. George, there are a lot of women today who are disappointed, Roman Catholic women, because obviously they've vested a lot of hope in this new pope to liberalize or improve the participation of women in the church.

Now he's said frankly and blatantly that there would be no question of ordination of women, but he did suggest that there would be an increased role for women in the church.

How can you see that happening?

GEORGE: Well, first, let's remember that not all women have the same political or moral or religious views. There are women who are --


AMANPOUR: Right. I'm talking about those --

GEORGE: -- of the Catholic Church. Then there are women on the other side as well.

Now what the pope has said here, which I think should be something that's received favorably by all women, whether they tend to be more conservative or more liberal and indeed by all Catholics and that is within the doctrinal structure of the church, even laying aside the question of women's ordination which the pope says is settled and it's not open for discussion, there are ways the pope says for women to participate more actively in the life of the church including in the exercise of authority. There's no reason with many church offices that women cannot hold them just as well as men. These are non-ordinational offices. But they're important offices, offices through which the church carries out its mission. So the pope wants to see more women participating and he wants to hear from all of us about ways in which women can participate more actively.

AMANPOUR: All right. On that note, thank you so much for joining me.

GEORGE: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And the conflict in Syria is also on the pope's radar. He talks often about it in his sermon and in his meetings with foreign leaders. And in a moment, I will speak to a veteran diplomat who's tried as hard as anyone to bring the war inside there to the negotiating table. So can talks this time lead to a lasting settlement for Syria? I'll ask Lakhdar Brahimi about the incredible hurdles ahead.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

Now to the unenviable task of trying to find peace in Syria. While the date for the so-called Geneva 2 talks has finally been set for January, the full list of attendees is still unknown. Last night on this program, we brought you the full extent of the humanitarian horror that's unfolding without end in Syria.

So what are the realistic chances that the war might end? The U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced the talks, but in this exclusive interview from Geneva, he tells me that he's going into them with his eyes very much wide open.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Brahimi, it's great to see you. Thanks for joining me again on this program.

You've been trying to get --



AMANPOUR: -- you've been trying to get all sides together for a long time now. You'd hoped to do so in the summer.

What has changed? Why now? Because we don't even know who's going. You haven't even extended an invitation list, I understand, unless that's changed.

BRAHIMI: Yes, sure.

AMANPOUR: The government says it's going. The opposition says -- hasn't told you yes or no. The armed opposition says it's not going. The others don't even know whether they're going.

So why is -- what's different now?

BRAHIMI: It is very, very different because the government is saying plainly, clearly, that they are coming without any preconditions. The opposition are saying that they are coming, although they have questions, fears and doubts. But they said they are going -- they are coming. And they will be coming.

And we are -- we have always been conscious of the fact that the -- all we can hope for is what I call a delegation that is reasonably representative.

AMANPOUR: All right. You said the government is coming with no preconditions.

BRAHIMI: That's right.

AMANPOUR: Well, our Fred Pleitgen interviewed the deputy foreign minister; he says, yes, no preconditions, but immediately set a condition, which is that President Assad would be involved in any government transition in Syria.

Is that acceptable to you?

BRAHIMI: What has been said is that there will be no preconditions; that once the conference starts, the parties will be free to put on the table issues that they feel strongly about, it being very clear that what we are going to discuss is the implementation of the declaration of the 30th of June 2012.


AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about that. I want to ask you about -- you know, initially the communique that you refer to said that there has to be a substantial cessation of hostilities. That does not look to be the point.

So that's changed, right? No cease-fire.

BRAHIMI: Yes, sure. There will be no cease-fire and I don't think that, you know, things have changed since 2012, unfortunately, not for the better.

So we are now calling on the parties who are coming to Geneva to see if they can take any confidence-building measures, like diminishing the level of violence, like releasing prisoners and similar things like that, like also facilitating the arrival of humanitarian aid to the millions of people who need it inside Syria.

AMANPOUR: Well, when -- sorry, I just wanted to -- I wanted to ask you about that because the initial -- the initial communique also says that in order for these talks to go forth there have to be a set of agreements: number one, to intensify the pace and scale of the release of those who've been arbitrarily detained; and this you've said the government has to do.

The government has to ensure the freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists; and it has to respect the freedom of association and the right to demonstrate.

I mean, are any of those -- have any of those been met?

BRAHIMI: No, no, no, I think the situation has worsened beyond recognition. You know, in the end of June 2012, the situation was still largely a government, heavily armed and using its force to repress a rebellion and a few people that were armed and fighting it.

Now I -- what -- I think the situation is much worse. So we would very much -- we will be very happy to see these measures taking place. But I think we have -- I think we have accepted -- everybody has accepted that most of these things will happen after the conference starts, not before.

AMANPOUR: Do you think one side or the other feels that they're winning right now?

BRAHIMI: Some time ago, both sides were absolutely certain that they are winning. I think there is a little bit more doubt now.

AMANPOUR: OK. So you think -- ?

BRAHIMI: Yes, both sides now tell me there is no military solution. Or a -- to be precise, individuals on each side tell me that there is no military solution. I mean, I agree with that at long last that there is no military solution to this tragedy.

AMANPOUR: It's a massive mountain that you have undertaken to climb, and we wish you all the best.

BRAHIMI: Yes, it is.

Thank you very much, Christiane. Thank you very much indeed for having me.


AMANPOUR: And listen to our spirited exchange about whether Iran, a key backer of President Assad, should be at the table as well as who's responsible for the humanitarian nightmare. That's online at our website,

And after a break, while life on Planet Earth has been filled with conflict and deadly storms this year, a blazing light across the sky may offer some much needed perspective and some inspiring stargazing, a remarkable space odyssey when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, in the United States, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. But this year a powerful winter storm in the Northeast is threatening to make going to Grandma's house even more treacherous.

But imagine a world where one starry-eyed traveler will log 585 million miles to reach its destination. This extraordinary video taken by a NASA spacecraft tracks the path of Comet ISON. It's a speck of light with a signature comet's trail that's moving from left to right as it heads past Mercury and Earth for a close encounter with the glow of the sun.

Ever since it was first discovered last year by Russian astronomers, ISON's space odyssey has been tracked through our solar system. And if it doesn't burn up along the way, it should pass about 700,000 miles above the surface of the sun on Thanksgiving Day. A solar fly-by will swing it back towards Earth at Christmas time. It's a modern-day star in the East visible to shepherds and stargazers alike.

And if Comet is coming, can Donner and Blitzen be far behind? Go figure.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.