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John J. Conley, S.J.March 18, 2014

Belgium has recently set a new record. It has become the first country in the world to permit euthanasia for children. The new law removes the age restrictions on an earlier Belgian law that permitted euthanasia for adults in 2002.

The original law has had its own problematic history. It allowed adults with “unbearable suffering” to request a doctor to administer a lethal injection after several written requests, a waiting period and a medical evaluation of the patient’s mental competence. The law was originally defended as a way for patients with terminal illness and intractable physical pain to seek a merciful exit from their situation.

The application of the law has proved otherwise. “Unbearable suffering” was soon interpreted to include psychological, not only physical pain. A debilitating condition, not only terminal disease, could justify the request for death. Legally euthanized patients have included people suffering from depression, anorexia nervosa and impending blindness. In one case, a transgender citizen unhappy with the results of the sex-change surgery requested and received the lethal treatment. Recent studies indicate that one quarter of the patients euthanized could not have requested the procedure in anything resembling conditions of informed consent.

The move to extend euthanasia to children rests on an argument from equality: If adults have the legal right to seek a lethal medical exit from their unbearable pain, why shouldn’t children enjoy the same freedom? Supporters of the new law insist that it contains safeguards against abuse. The law stipulates that the only medical condition that could constitute grounds for the euthanasia of a minor is the presence of terminal illness, imminent death and untreatable physical pain. The child must be “capable of discernment” concerning the gravity of the request for a lethal injection. A psychologist must verify this mental competence. Both parents and the attending physician must consent to the requested act of euthanasia.

Critics are not convinced. Belgium is renowned for its advanced system of medical care. A committee of pediatricians protested that the palliative care available in the nation could successfully treat even the most painful conditions.

The law’s opponents roundly contested the claim that children had the capacity to decide whether a physician could kill them. Christian Democratic opponents of the law underscored the absurdity of granting life-and-death powers to minors who are not civilly capable of voting, contracting marriage or ordering a beer in the local café. Loose phrases in the new law—“capacity for discernment” reads like something from the desert fathers—seem to guarantee abuses similar to those that have plagued the drifting interpretations of its 2002 ancestor.

An eloquent witness against the law was the nurse Sonja Develter. A specialist in pediatric medicine, Develter has cared for more than 200 children in the final stages of terminal illness. She testified that she had not met a single child in such a condition who had asked to be killed. She had, however, met several parents who expressed a desire to have their child euthanized. The emotional exhaustion of caring for a dying child had overwhelmed them. It is difficult to imagine minors who could make a decision concerning euthanasia free from the influence of their families’ attitudes. If they sense they have become a burden, the scale will inevitably be tipped toward the lethal option.

The extension of euthanasia to children is not the last frontier in the euthanasia campaign. Some supporters of the recent law have argued for extension of euthanasia to patients with dementia. The consent of a “loved one” to killing such a patient could be sufficient.

As Belgium’s legal experiment broadens the class of beneficiaries of euthanasia, the original arguments in support of mercy killing have faded. The practice of medicalized death is no longer limited to those with intractable physical pain, a terminal illness with death imminent and an adult’s rational capacity to offer informed consent free from emotional duress. It is increasingly offered to—in fact, urged upon—the seriously ill and disabled because we have concluded that certain lives are simply not worth living.

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Paul Ferris
10 years 2 months ago
I think the word euthanasia can be a loaded word in that does not adequately describe the complex medical situations that living and dying in a body entails in extremis. Fr. Conley analysis of the dangers an difficulties of the law and practices in Belgium are very compelling but I disagree with his complete rejection of these laws and practices. Take one example I am familiar with in the Untied States: too much pain medicine can actually hasten the death of a patient with terminally ill cancer yet to limit the pain medicine causes crucifying pain and agony. So what should be done in these frequent circumstances? Most thinking on assisting a person to die with dignity is not easily reduced to euthanasia or assisted suicide. Even the Catholic tradition since Pius XII allowing a person to refuse extraordinary means of keeping a person alive is much more difficult to apply given the discoveries of science and medicine since the late popes time. What used to be considered extraordinary now may be thought of as ordinary. For example, can a person refuse chemotherapy for cancer and instead choose to do nothing and die, even though new treatments may save a persons life ? Nothing is black and white. Beside red and green lights, there is an orange light which means go slowly and proceed with caution. The picture that Fr. Conley paints of Belgian society is one that demonizes the motivation of the people who make laws and approve practices, Fr. Conley even accuses parents of wanting to get rid of their children for convenience sake.. Imagine the moral obtuseness ! To quote the present Bishop of Rome, who happens to be a Jesuit, ideas are one thing reality is another, especially when facing the sickness and death of a brother or sister or one's child.
Carole Belgrade
10 years 2 months ago
It seems that the Belgium government and other legal authorities in that country have 'conveniently forgotten' the lack of humanity and cruelty in the Nazi occupation of their country. During the Nazi regime, there were specific institutions established to end the lives of 'children unfit to live" ( www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/disabled.html) downloaded 3/24/2014. Let's never forget this abuse. History should not repeat itself.
Bruce Snowden
10 years 2 months ago
I realize that euthanasia is a response, not an answer to human pain and suffering, rooted in the ebb and flow of emotional tides, which may at time become engulfing. In part, emotional response tides may be such as, “Oh how terrible, what a shame, look at how she/he is anguishing, what an expense too, I can’t stand it, let’s lovingly end it for whomever, adult, child, even to come, babies.” Yes, babies too will become candidates for extinction! And there are so many more “tidal” examples. Unfortunately, proponents of euthanasia pay no heed to the Catholic concept of “salvific” suffering, fragrancing what can otherwise be a dark and dismal earth-experience called “pain.”. This Pauline teaching reveals that, somehow, our pain and suffering united to Christ’s, actually renders “complete” what was “lacking in the sufferings of Christ!” A very mysterious teaching. Of course there is nothing lacking in the sufferings of Christ. The teaching therefor focuses on a fundamental bulwark of Faith, that the Mystical Body of Christ the Church, whom we are and the Christ, are ONE. But because Christianity is such a common sense religion, we are also reminded that, when ill. “It is the sick, not the healthy who need a physician.” Obviously then, while accepting the “salvific” concept we are also obliged to do all we can to alleviate that awful reality of life on this earth, called “pain” always within the Laws of God, one of which clearly states, “You shall not murder” or as more popularly rendered, “You shall not kill.” I apologize if my dabbling in truth even if abridged, offends anyone. I do appreciate the opportunity to engage in a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions, famously offered by AMERICA.
ron chandonia
10 years 2 months ago
Fr. Conley is not "demonizing" exhausted parents who may come to want their perpetually needy children killed. He is simply pointing out a sad reality, one exemplified historically in the case of Baby Knauer, often described as the first victim of the Holocaust.
Marie Rehbein
10 years 2 months ago
Given that the medical establishment of Belgium seems to be against these laws, who is behind them?
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years ago
Excellent article and comments. I wish that these discussions could make more distinctions between euthanasia and "prolonging" life. There is a grey area here that is usually blurry to those of us who must make these decisions. Palliative care is good (and getting better), and perhaps (I hope) excruciating pain does not have to be part of the death process. But there must be a willingness of both the dying and those accompanying the dying to allow the "moment" of death to be in the hands of God. Not hurrying it and not delaying it. It seems very mysterious to me, and an act of ultimate intimacy and surrender (both ways) between God and the Beloved. To declare control over this "moment" of time (that is really outside of time) - as in euthanasia - seems very much akin to murder/suicide/abortion/the death penalty etc. A major sacrilege.

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