BRUSSELS (AP) - Belgium, one of the very few countries where euthanasia is legal, is expected to take the unprecedented step this week of abolishing age restrictions on who can ask to be put to death - extending the right to children for the first time.
The legislation appears to have wide support in the largely liberal country. But it has also aroused intense opposition from foes - including a list of pediatricians - and everyday people who have staged noisy street protests, fearing that vulnerable children will be talked into making a final, irreversible choice.
Backers like Dr. Gerland van Berlaer, a prominent Brussels pediatrician, believe it is the merciful thing to do. The law will be specific enough that it will only apply to the handful of teenage boys and girls who are in advanced stages of cancer or other terminal illnesses and suffering unbearable pain, he said.
AP Photo - Dr. Gerlant van Berlaer says the beneficiaries of a change in Belgium’s right-to-die law should be teenage boys and girls who are in the advanced stages of cancer or other terminal illnesses, and are suffering unbearable pain.
Under current law, they must let nature take its course or wait until they turn 18 and can ask to be euthanized.
"We are talking about children that are really at the end of their life. It's not that they have months or years to go. Their life will end anyway," said Van Berlaer, chief of clinic in the pediatric critical care unit of University Hospital Brussels. "The question they ask us is: 'Don't make me go in a terrible, horrifying way, let me go now while I am still a human being and while I still have my dignity.'"
The Belgian Senate voted 50-17 on Dec. 12 to amend the country's 2002 law on euthanasia so that it would apply to minors, but only under certain additional conditions. Those include parental consent and a requirement that any minor desiring euthanasia demonstrate a "capacity for discernment" to a psychiatrist and psychologist.
The House of Representatives, the other chamber of Parliament, is scheduled to debate today whether to agree to the changes, and vote on them Thursday. Passage is widely expected.
King Philippe, Belgium's constitutional head of state, must sign the legislation for it to go into effect. So far, the 53-year-old monarch and father of four has not taken a public position, but spokesman Pierre De Bauw said that is not unusual. "We never give any comment on any piece of legislation being discussed in Parliament," De Bauw said Tuesday.
Although one opinion poll found 75 percent of Belgians in favor, there has been a vocal opposition.
"We are opening a door that nobody will be able to close," Andre Leonard, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and chairman of the Episcopal Conference of Belgium, said. "There is a risk of very serious consequences in the long term for society and the meaning we give to life, death and the freedom of human beings."
Etienne Dujardin, 29, a notary employee and father, has been among those staging protests as the debate in the House of Representatives nears. He doesn't believe safeguards proposed under the new law are watertight enough to protect youngsters who may be incapacitated by disease.
"If you take three psychiatrists, one of them will end up approving (euthanasia)," Dujardin said. "In the name of promoting freedom for children, we're letting someone else decide."
This week, an "open letter" carrying the names of 160 Belgian pediatricians was issued to argue against the new law, claiming there is no urgent need for it and that modern medicine is capable of soothing the pain of even the sickest children.
The doctors said there was no objective way of proving that children possess the "discernment" to know what euthanasia means.
By Van Berlaer's estimate, only a handful of Belgian children, all in the teenage years, would be able each year to make use of the lifting of age restrictions. "If there is still a possible medical treatment, they will not be allowed to ask for euthanasia," the Brussels pediatrician said.
The discernment clause, he said, should bar the law from applying to young children.