Sponsoring Terrorism, Shocking New Belgian Law Allows Children to Choose Death. Quantity of life is important to be sure; I’d rather die in 2089 (when I will be 128) than tomorrow. But now that we live decades longer than our medieval ancestors, we are encountering conditions that they never did. Centuries ago, Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the aged were rare because the aged were rare. If people are dropping dead of the plague or smallpox in their 20s and 30s, they won’t get a chance to develop diseases common in 80-year-olds. Medicine has created a new demand on ethics.
In recognition of this fact, Belgium passed a law 12 years ago allowing adults to choose death rather than continue suffering in life. While there are some arguments against this that might hold water, I tend to be very libertarian in this kind of matter. The state has no right to tell me I have to keep living if I don’t want to — presuming that my decision to check out is a rational one and not one brought on by mental illness or other conditions that would render me incapable of reasoned thought.
And this is where it gets hard in the case of minors. As a general rule, those under a certain age (which is inevitably arbitrary) are presumed incapable of mature decision making. A child cannot do certain things that an adult can (vote, have sex, drive a car, own property, etc.) largely because children are deemed not to have sufficient capacity for rational thought (although when I was 12 I was a damned sight more rational than anyone who voted for Bush in 2004).
The very first episode of “House of Cards” begins with Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) beside a dog that has been hit by a car and is dying. He says, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” Then, he strangles the dog. Since it was a dog, it is sad, but it is hardly criminal. Had he strangled a human, it would have been a felony. But should a terminally ill human have to go through the kind of pain that is only suffering? In Belgium, a few days ago, the parliament voted to expand the nation’s current euthanasia law to include terminally ill children.
I think everyone’s answer initially is that life is precious and needs to be protected. And it’s that kind of thinking that has doctors engaging in operating room heroics to tack a few more weeks of life onto a 94-year-old with failing kidneys and cancer in a few places. But if you have ever sat in a hospital room and watched someone die hooked up to a morphine drip to keep the pain “manageable,” the answer starts to change.
But there is also a problem with the term “minor.” Simply put, there’s a huge difference between a 17-year-old and a 17-month-old in this kind of situation. For that reason, Belgium’s neighbor to the north, the Netherlands, permits euthanasia for those 12 or older in certain situations.
The Belgian law has four essential requirements: the patient must be conscious of his or her decision (no one in a coma); parents and the attending medical team have to OK the request; the illness has to be a terminal one; and there has to be “unbearable physical suffering” that medicine cannot alleviate. These are pretty reasonable, I would say.
Still, not everyone is happy. “The law says adolescents cannot make important decisions on economic or emotional issues, but suddenly they’ve become able to decide that someone should make them die,” said Brussels Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, head of the Catholic Church in Belgium. Would it be unfair of me to note that his church was far less interested in kids when priests in that country were molesting them by the hundreds? Yes, I went there.
Before the euthanasia law passed, 160 Belgian pediatricians signed an open letter against it. They argued that there was no urgent need for it and that medicine can alleviate pain. In medical matters, I will defer to their greater expertise, but this isn’t a medical issue. In this, they are no different than unemployed fletchers — they are laymen in matters political. Passing a law before there is an urgent need is called foresight; this is the ideal time to pass such a law. The last thing you want is to pass something in the heat of the moment (for example, the badly named Patriot Act).
And if they are right that medicine can deal with all pain in all instances, then there is nothing for them to worry about. And if they are wrong (and doctors have been wrong from time to time), then there is a law in place to deal with the situation.
Death is a difficult matter for most of us to consider. We have come to our current customs and behaviors involving death more by accident than anything else. There is a good case for us never to play God, according to some, but isn’t that what we do every time were revive a heart-attack victim, employ the Heimlich maneuver or irradiate a tumor?
I won’t pretend to have all the questions, let alone know any of the answers, but the conversation needs to happen.