February 21, 2014
Twice in the past week the L.A. Times published op-eds contending the newly passed law in Belgium allowing euthanasia for children should be enacted in the United States.
In a Thursday op-ed, “Belgium’s humane stance on dying kids,” columnist Meghan Daum contended that people who object to such a program are paranoid, and it should be acceptable because it will be rarely implemented.
While the legislation is being called historic in that it’s the first of its kind to cover children of any age who can prove a “capacity for discernment,” it’s not exactly unprecedented. For more than a decade, the Netherlands has allowed terminally ill children older than 12 to request euthanasia in special circumstances.
Contrary to paranoid visions, children in Belgium won’t be able to ask for life-ending medication by merely hitting a nurse’s call button. They must be suffering from pain that doctors have deemed truly unmanageable. They must get approval from their parents and their medical team, and they must be evaluated by psychologists. They must make the request several times and demonstrate that they understand what they’re asking for. And, of course, they must be close to death anyway.
The Netherlands has a similarly careful process, which might explain why in the 12 years since its children’s euthanasia law was passed, only five children have received aid in dying. In all but the rarest cases, pain and suffering were managed through palliative care.
On Valentines Day the paper ran Scott Martelle’s piece “Extend assisted suicide to children? Belgium says yes; so should we,” which concludes:
It’s not an easy conclusion to reach. But if we believe that it is humane to give terminally ill adults the right to end their lives with medical help, how can we not extend that ability to terminally ill minors? Because of their age, they should be forced to suffer more than an adult?
Yes, there are sound reasons why we do not entrust the young with significant life decisions, and why we carve out exceptions for criminal behavior in recognition of their inability to often not understand the full weight and repercussions of their actions. But for a child facing death in the short term, and in agony, we as a society should enable the child’s right to die with the least amount of suffering — under the protocol (or a variation) suggested above.
Euthanasia is a controversial program for adults. Allowing euthanasia for children elicits even greater concerns, many of which Martelle glosses over in his final paragraph. We treat criminal behavior in children differently because of their undeveloped thought process. How can a child facing death have the capacity to make that type of decision?