A terminally ill child has been helped to die in Belgium for the first time since the country removed age restrictions on euthanasia two years ago. Senator Jean-Jacques De Gucht confirmed the death of the sick child last Saturday. He said the minor was from Belgium’s Flemish region, but declined to provide any further details about the patient to protect the privacy of the grieving family.
Shockingly, the current law in Belgium means that even a 6-year old child could decide to end his or her own life. The legislation requires certain criteria to be fulfilled before euthanasia can be applied: a child must be in the final stages of a terminal illness, understand the difference between life and death, and have asked to end his or her life on repeated occasions. It also requires parental consent and the approval of two doctors, including a psychiatrist.
There are a couple of pressing concerns in this tragic decision. Firstly, can a child really be said to fully “understand the difference between life and death?” If so, why would a 10-year old child be prosecuted differently under Belgian law if he were to kill another person? (the child in this instance was 17 years old, but there is no reason to suggest that a 10-year old couldn’t make the same decision in future). It is because we understand that a child does not possess the full mental capacity of an adult, and so we treat children differently in the criminal justice system. This double standard reveals what most people know to be common sense: that children are not equipped to make complex life and death decisions, nevermind the decision to take their own lives.
Secondly, even if a child could be said to understand life and death decisions, should any person, regardless of age, be entitled to take their own life? As Christians, we must never ignore the imperative from Scripture that life is sacred and God-given. The Bible tells us that we are commanded not to murder (Exodus 20:13) and that God has given us life (Job 33:4). The taking of any life, even if we can sympathise with a person’s suffering in the final stages of terminal illness, is still an unjustified and unnecessary act of killing.
The debate over legalised euthanasia is not new, and of course those with a secular worldview will disagree with the sanctity of life argument. But the most worrying new trend is that even young children can now be subjected to euthanasia without having a true understanding of what they are doing. The issue has even been reframed so that euthanasia is now seen as an act of compassion rather than killing. Commenting on the recent killing senator Jean-Jacques De Gucht said “It’s terrible when a youngster suffers, but it gives me some comfort to know that now there is a choice out there for children in the final terminal stages.”
Some religious leaders have spoken out against the horrific act committed last Saturday. The Roman Catholic Bishop Angelo Bagnasco described the news of the euthanasia of this child as “painful and worrisome.” However, much more opposition will be needed from national and international groups if this legislation is ever to be overturned.