BRUSSELS - Belgium faced fresh protests Wednesday as its parliament prepared to extend a ground-breaking euthanasia law to terminally-ill children, only the second nation to allow minors the right to die.
After months of public debate over the ethical issues at stake, surveys show Belgians broadly in support of the move to widen the 2002 euthanasia law to children faced with “unbearable physical suffering", in a vote Thursday.
But days after the Catholic church staged “a day of fasting and prayer” in protest, some 160 pediatricians Wednesday petitioned lawmakers to postpone the vote on the grounds it was both ill-prepared and unnecessary.
“Pain can be eased nowadays, there’s been huge progress in palliative care,” said Nadine Francotte, a cancer specialist in the city of Liege who signed the petition.
Saying euthanasia drugs cause an un-natural death, she said palliative drugs on the other hand “enable a child to live to the last moment.”
“Children are not small adults, they have energy often up to the very last,” she told national RTBF radio.
Not so, retorted Brussels palliative specialist Dominique Lossignol of the Bordet cancer clinic.
“Critics are unaware of the fact that you simply cannot control all types of pain, neither physical nor moral,” he told AFP.
“We doctors have been asking for an extension of the law for years.”
“Children are capable of taking such a decision, specially those who are chronically ill,” Lossignol added.
If adopted as expected, the legislation will make Belgium the second country after the Netherlands to allow incurably sick children to end their lives.
While the Dutch law, the world’s first euthanasia bill, enables mercy-killing in special cases for gravely ill patients 12 years or older, Belgium will be the first to lift all age restrictions.
The draft bill states a child must have “a capacity of discernment and be conscious at the moment of the request”.
The minor must also “be in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short-term”.
Counselling by doctors and a psychiatrist or psychologist is required, as is approval by the parents.
While Church leaders argued that extending euthanasia to the young “risks trivialising” death, the sponsor of the legislation Philippe Mahoux, a Socialist senator, says it is “the ultimate gesture of humanity.”
“Suffering must be taken into account,” Mahoux, who is himself a doctor, told AFP. “It is illness and the death of children that is scandalous,” not the euthanasia bill.
In a first vote in the Senate in December, the proposal won a resounding 71 votes in favour, with 17 against and four abstentions.
Based on witness statements from doctors, sponsors expect few requests each year but say that legalising what is already being practised will save doctors from potential criminal prosecution.
In December, a group of pediatricians in favour of the legislation said minors were perfectly capable of opting for euthanasia.
“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.”
While polls show as many as three-quarters of Belgians backing the proposal, there was a surge of concern last year when a 44-year-old in distress after a failed sex change operation was euthanised on psychological grounds in a highly-publicised case.
Belgium logged a record 1,432 cases of euthanasia in 2012, up 25 per cent. They represented two per cent of all deaths.
After The Netherlands and Belgium, Luxembourg in 2009 also approved euthanasia, but for adults only. In Switzerland, doctors can assist a patient seeking to die but euthanasia itself is illegal.