Belgium’s Approval of Euthanasia for Ill Children: Compassion or Murder?

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When Dr. Jack Kevorkian stood trial for his willingness to assist terminally ill people with their deaths, the question quickly became: is physician-assisted euthanasia compassionate, or is it murder? We’re still a nation divided on the issue. And what about children? What do we think about allowing terminally ill children the choice to die?

Earlier this month, Belgium became the first country in the world to approve physician-assisted suicides for terminally ill children.  The law, which already allows euthanasia for adults with terminal illnesses, will give children the right to choose to end their lives if they are in “constant and unbearable physical suffering” and equipped “with a capacity of discernment” to make that decision along with their parents. The Belgian Parliament still must vote to pass the measure by next spring, but it’s expected to support the decision of the Senate.

Death and dying, we know, are unavoidable. Undignified suffering? That can be avoided. There’s no light in the tragedy of a child facing a terminal illness, but helping to shorten their suffering is, at the very least, a noble effort. It seems to be the kind of decision we make as a society on the precipice of an evolutionary leap—one towards understanding and respect for the sovereignty of individual consciousness (of all species).

Religion likes to interject itself here into discussions about living and dying, of what god (or, rather, a god) wants. It’s taboo in many faiths to commit suicide, even if you’re an innocent 9-year-old with cancer. But here’s the thing. Religions, save for a very few, are really, really old—originating in times and spaces about as far removed as you can get from iPads, chemotherapy and Google Glass. Terminal illnesses back then were of the plague variety. If you got it, most everyone else you knew did too. Leukemia was less of a threat than predators or conquests, complicated births or starvation. Had cancer been an issue in Biblical times (or AIDS, or cystic fibrosis or any other number of awful diseases there’s often no relief from), we’d more likely have a different moral compass when it comes to euthanasia (and abortion for that matter, too). If Jesus wasn’t nailed to a cross, but instead clung to his last breath on life support, the question of when it’s ethical to end a life would not be a question.

The other caveat here is our history with killing children. Nazi Germany comes to mind. So does Darfur. The difference here though is undeniably the element of compassion; but a dead child, no matter what the cause, hurts us in a profound way. As a mother, I wonder how long I’d hold onto hope for a cure, for a miracle, for anything that could change my child’s fate if she lay in a hospital bed waiting to die. At the same time though, I’d also want to do anything to stop her suffering. And if she asked me to let her die?

Morality isn’t really subjective. It’s always about doing the right thing–the thing that causes the least amount of suffering. Modern medicine allows us many benefits, but is extended suffering moral? As science and technology become even better at keeping us alive, we have reason to hold out hope for medical miracles. Certainly our children do. But we must remember the laws of nature. Everyone gets to be young, but not everyone gets to grow old. And if we can’t grow old because of a painful, incurable disease, sparing a child undue suffering seems to be the next best thing.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Christiaan Triebert

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.