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Belgium’s euthanasia law gives terminally ill children the right to die

More than a decade after Belgium legalized euthanasia, it made headlines last year when it became the first country to lift any age restrictions for the procedure. Under the law, terminally ill children can request euthanasia if they are near death, and suffering “constant and unbearable physical” pain with no available treatment. NewsHour's Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    More than a decade after Belgium became the second country in the world to legalize euthanasia, it once again made headlines in early 2014 when it became the first country to lift any age restrictions associated with the procedure.

    In the few American states with laws on the books allowing assisted suicide, only adults are permitted. In fact, just this month, the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered a 17-year-old girl with cancer to continue chemotherapy treatments against her will.

    Yet in Belgium, under the new law, terminally ill children can request euthanasia if they are near death, and suffering "constant and unbearable physical" pain with no available treatment. Parents would have to consent as would with three separate doctors. So far there have been no cases of children in Belgium requesting euthanasia.

    The controversial move came after years of public debate and widespread opposition by religious groups throughout Europe.

  • ELS VAN HOOF, MP-Christian Democrats:

    We know that children have a different idea about the irreversibility of death. They don't know what it means. You can't decide on death when you're 6,7,8,9 years old.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Though some parliament members voted against the bill, euthanasia for terminally ill children passed by an overwhelming majority, and was supported by most Belgians, even though the country is predominantly Roman Catholic.

    Soon after the parliament voted yes on child euthanasia, the Belgian Catholic Church described the law as "a step too far," arguing that modern medicine can alleviate the suffering of terminally ill patients, and allows illness to run a natural course to death.

  • DR. JUTTE VAN DER WERFF TEN BOSCH:

    It isn't just the sort of thing you wake up with on a sunny day and say "Oh, today I might like to die.'

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Yet Dr. Jutte van der Werff Ten Bosch, a pediatric oncologist at Brussels University Hospital, says offering alternatives like painkillers, more chemo, and sedation to desperate families hasn't felt like enough, and she believes some of her past patients would have chosen euthanasia, had it been legal.

  • DR. JUTTE VAN DER WERFF TEN BOSCH:

    When a child has lost hope of ever returning to a normal society, when there is really nothing there, and there is only suffering to come and there has been so much suffering already, I can imagine that you say, "OK this has been enough for me."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    She says extending the euthanasia law to include children makes perfect sense to her.

  • DR. JUTTE VAN DER WERFF TEN BOSCH:

    As a doctor, this law is great. Every individual has thoughts of dying especially when they are terminally ill. Even children. And they should be able to discuss it with their doctor and express their wishes.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    After testing, psychologists must confirm that the child understands what they are doing, and how serious it is.

  • DR. JUTTE VAN DER WERFF TEN BOSCH:

    Suffering is not only pain, suffering is also shortness of breath, fear, feeling lonely, isolated. They really mature very fast and understand things other children their age really have never thought of.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Similar legislation has existed in the Netherlands for more than a decade, though only for children over the age of 12 and only a handful of cases have been reported by the country's government. Officials in Belgium's Euthanasia Control and Evaluation Commission, which oversees the practice in Belgium, expect actual cases of child-euthanasia to be extremely rare.

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