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Belgium: Report Reveals Euthanasia Commission Authorized Euthanasia of Three Minors in 2016–17

(Oct. 29, 2018) Belgium has the world’s only law allowing terminally ill minors in “unbearable suffering” to choose to die. (Henry Samuel, Belgium Authorized Euthanasia of a Terminally Ill Nine and 11-Year-Old in Youngest Cases Worldwide, TELEGRAPH (Aug. 7, 2018).) According to a report published on July 17, 2018, by the Commission fédérale de Contrôle et d’Évaluation de l’Euthanasie (Federal Commission for the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia) (CFCEE), Belgium physicians administered lethal injections to three minors between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2017. (CFCEE, Huitième rapport aux Chambres législatives années 2016–2017 [Eighth Report to the Legislative Chambers for the Years 2016–2017] (CFCEE 2018 Report) (July 17, 2018).)

Background

In 2014, Belgium amended its law on euthanasia to authorize doctors to terminate the life of a minor “capable of discernment and who is conscious at the time the request is made.” (Loi modifiant la loi du 28 mai 2002 relative à l’euthanasie, en vue d’étendre l’euthanasie aux mineurs [Law Amending the Law of May 28, 2002, Regarding Euthanasia to Extend It to Minors] art. 2 (all translations by author).)

The minors must have the mental capacity to make the decision and receive parental consent. (Id.) Doctors must first verify that a child is “in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable physical suffering that cannot be eased and will cause death in the short term resulting from a serious and incurable accidental or pathological condition.” (Id.)

Once a minor has expressed his or her wish for euthanasia in writing, psychiatrists conduct examinations and tests to determine the level of discernment and ensure that the minor was “not influenced by a third party.” (Id. art. 2(7°).) However, parents can prevent the request from being carried out. (Id.)

CFCEE Report

For a year following the enactment of the law, no euthanasia was carried out in accordance with it. That said, the CFCEE’s report, published on July 17, 2018, noted that three unnamed minors, aged 9, 11, and 17, had been administered lethal injections between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2017. (CFCEE 2018 Report, supra.) The children were suffering from a brain tumor, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy, respectively. (Id. at 12.) According to the report, the Commission “approved these three cases unanimously,” and the Commission believes that “extending the scope of the law to include minors capable of discernment makes sense, because its aim is to give minors the freedom to choose when to end their life.” (Id.)

Reactions and Criticism

Belgium’s decision to extend its euthanasia law to cover minors has proved extremely controversial, both nationally and internationally. Those who support the law believe children should not be made to suffer against their will, but opponents say they are too young to make the decision to die. (Samuel, supra.) Luc Proot, a member of the CFCEE, defended the decision to authorize the euthanasia cases, saying, “I saw mental and physical suffering so overwhelming that I thought we did a good thing.” (Id.)

Belgium’s bishops called the law “a step too far,” while a group of 162 Belgian pediatricians wrote: “We are today able to perfectly control physical pain, choking or anxiety at the approach of death.” (Id.)

In addition to the three minors in question, 4,334 adults chose to be euthanized in Belgium between 2016 and 2017, approximately 64% of whom were cancer patients. (CFCEE 2018 Report, supra, at 3.)

Prepared by Sarah Ettedgui, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Nicolas Boring, Foreign Law Specialist.