After little more than a day of debate, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives passed a child euthanasia law on Thursday. The bill now awaits Royal assent from King Philippe.
The bill allows a child who can understand the seriousness of a request for euthanasia and who has his or her parents’ consent to be killed. There is no age limit. The bill is supposedly designed for children experiencing unrelievable pain and symptoms as a result of a terminal disease, yet from the experiences in both Belgium and The Netherlands over the past decade, the reach of the legislation is likely to expand.
Precisely where it might expand to is hard to imagine – this would seem to be legislation at the very bottom of the bad-apple barrel. But considering that few, if any, could have imagine the Belgians leaping so definitively over the moral cliff as they have done in recent times and especially this week, even sceptics must accept that there may yet be more to come.
And it is not as if the Belgians can point to the regime over this past decade as an example of responsible, well-managed and contained euthanasia within the intention and limits of the law. In a debate in Brussels late last year, one of the main protagonists for the original euthanasia law, Professor Jan Bernheim, admitted that there were flaws and abuses under the law. Somehow he seemed unconcerned that he should make such an admission.
That the law is a blunt instrument is well understood; yet still the Belgian parliament fell for the ‘stringent safeguard’ sleight of hand that has patently failed the Belgian people over the last 11 years. In a country where nearly a third of reported euthanasia cases show no record of request or consent and where only a little over half of all euthanasia acts are reported to the government Euthanasia Evaluation Committee (both required by law) and, where this committee has not referred one case for consideration by the authorities, even the semblance of safety and due regard for process is little more than a macabre joke on the Belgian people.
In fact, last month, in a joint interview with his friend and co-chair of the Euthanasia Evaluation Committee, Dr Wim Distelmans, Dr Marc Cosyns admitted that he had not reported the many euthanasia deaths he had been involved with. As Michael Cook observed at the time, “Even Wim Distelmans appeared to be bug-eyed in amazement at this admission. “But Marc,” he said gently, “you cannot ignore the criminal law.”
Cosyns’s opinion, that the law should get out of the way and allow doctors to simply get on with it, at least has the virtue of reason – if not morally bankrupt reasoning. Belgian Reformist Movement MP Daniel Bacquelaine agrees. He told the newspaper La Libre this week that ‘The right approach to life and death cannot be restricted to adults.’ It stands to reason that if euthanasia is a virtuous and compassionate act and a right given by law, then restricting it to only the aged and and excluding children is illogical.
This is precisely what child euthanasia represents in the pathology of both the Dutch and Belgian euthanasia experience. Once a model limiting access to a small section of the community is established and the practice of killing is normalized, there’s an inexorable move towards bracket creep and incremental extension that makes Cosyns’s view both plausible and inevitable.
A number of senior and respected persons and groups weighed in against the passage of this bill in recent days including about 200 of the 1600 paediatricians in Belgium. The International Children’s’ Palliative Care Network issued a statement condemning the move from their conference in Mumbai.
A group within the Assembly of the Council for Europe also issued a declaration, including a representative from The Netherlands. While the declaration was not the result of any debate in the assembly, at least one of its many comments was an undisguised reference to the systematic killing of disabled people and children that took place in the years before the Second World War in Nazi Germany. Stating that the new law ‘betrays some of the most vulnerable children in Belgium’, the statement went on to add that it:
promotes the unacceptable belief that a life can be unworthy of life which challenges the very basis of civilised society.
The term “life unworthy of life” (in German: “Lebensunwertes Leben“) was a Nazi slogan for those deemed to have no right to live and who were to be “euthanized”, first under the notorious T4 program where an estimated 250,000 disabled people, including children, were murdered which in turn lead directly to the holocaust and the Nazi death camps. The use of the term in this context is clearly deliberate.
Like much of German society at the time, the pro-euthanasia groups have been silent on child euthanasia. Apart from an occasional news item, I have seen nothing resembling anything like a commentary in their newsletters or on their websites. Like those that remained silent in the 1930s, it is as if nothing of note was going on in Belgium.
Can we assume that this silence means consent? Perhaps. But one thing is certain; the inability of the Dutch and Belgian authorities to contain acts of euthanasia confirms the warnings to that effect of earlier parliamentary inquiries including the House of Lords, the New York Task Force and, closer to home, the Parliament of Tasmania that euthanasia legislation cannot be made safe from abuse.
If a law can be abused, it will be abused.
Paul Russell is Executive Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide and is Vice Chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International.