Is Death more Dignified in Western Europe?

In 2002 Belgium legalized the right to euthanasia (defined as the act of killing someone painlessly, especially to relieve suffering from an incurable illness) for adults. Less than two weeks ago, the Belgium Senate and House voted in favor of extending the law to include terminally ill children. Now the law has to pass the symbolic stage of being signed by the King of Belgium before going into effect. When done, Belgium will become the first country in the world that allows active voluntary euthanasia for people of any age.

Ahead of the vote, the law had provoked religious groups in Europe and the rest of the world. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders united in a rare joint declaration against the law, while Catholic bishops fasted against it. The law had strong domestic support, however, and regardless of the churches’ attempts to block or stall it, the law passed as many Belgians had expected.

The law states that a minor who expresses the need of euthanasia must “be in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short term.” The suffering has to be physical, and the request must come from the person suffering. In addition, a doctor and a psychiatrist or psychologist must evaluate the minor in order to make sure that the minor fully comprehends and understands what he or she is asking for. In the end, the parents of the minor have to give their approval in favor of the decision.

Opponents of the law, among them Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, head of the Catholic Church in Belgium, argue that these safeguards are arbitrary and children are too young to decide by themselves to die, whereas the supporters of the law hold the opposite opinion, countering that children with terminal illness show the maturity of an older age. This argument is backed by the Belgian Liberal Humanist Association (HVV), which states on its website that “children who are in a hopeless situation have a high degree of maturity, especially compared to other healthy children. Setting an age is therefore completely arbitrary.”

The approval of the law serves as a blow to the religious groups in Belgium, sends an indirect, positive signal to the secular movement there, and a very clear signal to the parliaments of surrounding countries. Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands for individuals who are at least twelve years old, whereas in Luxembourg, patients must at least be eighteen years old. France is going to take up the issue later this year. In Switzerland, active voluntary euthanasia is illegal, however assisted voluntary euthanasia (assisted suicide) is legal. Assisted suicide differs from euthanasia as physician provides the means for death and the patient, thereby not the physician, will administer the lethal medication. Euthanasia means that the physician giving a lethal injection to end a patient’s life and suffering.

Not surprisingly, voluntary euthanasia is illegal by law in the United States and there exists virtually no public debate about changing it. The United States is still battling topics such as equal rights for LGBT Americans, including same-sex marriage, and the right to abortion, and it seems the debate regarding euthanasia can’t begin before these issues have been resolved. But the good news for advocates of human rights and human dignity is that assisted suicide is legal in four U.S. states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont.

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