The social affairs and justice committees voted for the measure, 13 to 4, last week at a joint meeting. They have now sent the bill, which will also extend the provisions for euthanasia to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, to the Senate for further debate. Currently the law only allows euthanasia requests for those over 18 and of sound mind, although it is acknowledged that these restrictions are widely ignored.
Support for the lowering of the age limit, which has received criticism from Church leaders, is strong among Belgian legislators. Bruno Vanobbergen, Flemish commissioner for the rights of the child, had suggested it be lowered to 12 years with parental consent and to 16 without. Bernard De Vos, Commissioner for Child Rights of the French Community, said that without parental consent, the age limit should be set to 15.
In its current form the bill would allow euthanasia, with parental consent, for children experiencing intolerable physical pain and who are suffering from a terminal medical condition. The children would have to be examined by a psychiatrist to ensure they understand their request.
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Many anti-euthanasia activists have said that euthanasia is clearly “out of control” in Belgium. In the years since its legalisation in 2002, Belgium has seen a nearly 500 per cent increase in deaths by euthanasia. Recent reports have also found that patients in hospitals are increasingly being killed without their consent or the consent of their families.
Despite politicians’ repeated claims that legal “safeguards” are built into the law, studies regularly find that there are few functional restrictions, with most of the safeguards being routinely ignored. In 2010, research published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) found that 32 percent of euthanasia deaths in the Flemish region of Belgium are done without an explicit request.
A second study by the CMAJ the same year found that nearly 45 percent of euthanasia deaths involving nurses in Belgium were without a specific request. “The researchers found that a fifth of nurses admitted being involved in the assisted suicide of a patient. But nearly half of these – 120 of 248 – also said there was no consent,” the report said.
Research published the same year by the British Medical Journal also found that only 52.8 percent of all euthanasia deaths were officially reported, as is required by the law.
Now the political debate has turned to proposals to allow the killing of children and teenagers and people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Supporters say that because doctors are known to be widely ignoring and breaking the law in these cases, the law must be changed to accommodate them.
The Belgian press quoted Dominique Biarent, head of intensive care at Queen Fabiola Children’s University Hospital in Brussels, who gave testimony to senators. “It is clear that euthanasia is practiced in miners and we all know,” she said. Because the law is so regularly flouted, she said, “Doctors need a legal framework.”
Gerland van Berlaer, a pediatrician at Brussels’ Free University told CNN, “Doctors do terminate lives of children as well as adults. 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.”