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Ethics briefing
  1. Sophie Brannan,
  2. Ruth Campbell,
  3. Martin Davies,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather

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Child euthanasia—Belgium

In February 2014, the Belgian Parliament passed legislation allowing euthanasia for terminally ill children of all ages by 86 votes to 44, with 12 abstentions. The Bill became law in early March after being signed by the King, making Belgium the first country in the world to abolish age restrictions for euthanasia. Previously, the youngest age at which euthanasia was permitted was 12 years old in The Netherlands.1

Euthanasia was legalised in Belgium in 2002, and the new legislation introduces amendments to the law extending euthanasia to minors in certain circumstances. Euthanasia is now permissible for children of all ages where the child has a “terminal and incurable illness”, experiences “constant and unbearable physical suffering”, and death is expected to occur within a “brief period”. The child must be deemed capable of making the decision, and have the agreement of their parents.

Belgian law sets no timetable for euthanasia from the point at which the patient first expresses a wish to die. As with adults seeking euthanasia, any request must be made in writing. A physician and “outsider” brought in to give a second opinion must agree upon the diagnosis and prognosis, and a paediatric psychiatrist or psychologist must certify in writing that the child possesses “the capacity of discernment”. Following this, the child's physician must meet with the parents to inform them of the outcome of the consultation and ensure they are in agreement with the child's request. The child and the family must receive psychological care and support if so desired.

The move provoked heated debate and divided the medical, legal and political professions in Belgium. A group of 160 of the country's paediatricians opposed a change in the law, citing concerns about the largely subjective assessment of the “capacity of discernment”, and drawing attention to advances in …

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