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The Extension of Belgium’s Euthanasia Law to Include Competent Minors

Abstract

Following considerable debate, the practice of euthanasia was legalized in Belgium in 2002, thereby making Belgium one of the few places in the world where this practice is legal. In 2014 the law was amended for the first time. The 2014 amendment makes euthanasia legally possible for all minors who repeatedly and voluntarily request euthanasia and who are judged to possess “capacity of discernment” (regardless of their biological age), as well as fulfil a number of other criteria of due care. This extension of the 2002 euthanasia law generated a lot of national and international debate and has been applauded by many and heavily criticized by others. This evolution is clearly of interest to end-of-life debates in the entire world. This paper will therefore describe how this amendment came to get passed using official documents from Belgium's Senate and Chamber of Representatives where this amendment was discussed and subsequently passed. Next, some of the most commonly given arguments in favour of the law are identified, as well as the arguments most often voiced against the amendment. All these arguments will be expanded upon and it will be examined whether they hold up to ethical scrutiny. Analysing the official documents and identifying the most commonly voiced arguments gives valuable insight into how Belgium came to amend its euthanasia law and why it did so in 2014. It also becomes clear that although the current amendment is often seen as far-reaching, more radical ideas were proposed during the drafting of the law. Also, in analysing those arguments in favour of the amendment and those against, it is clear that the validity of some of these is questionable.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For a detailed discussion on the history and content of Belgium’s 2002 euthanasia law, see Griffiths, Weyers, and Adams (2008).

  2. 2.

    This is a special provision in Belgian law according to which in certain rare circumstances, a person who is legally a minor (but older than fifteen) can nevertheless be “emancipated” or legally considered an adult (in Dutch “ontvoogd”). One becomes emancipated through marriage or by declaration of a youth court. An emancipated minor has more decisional authority than a minor (mostly in terms of financial rights), but still not the same as an adult.

  3. 3.

    For better understanding of this paper, a brief word explaining Belgium’s governmental structure. Belgium has a bicameral legislature in which, at the time when this law was debated, ethical laws were first discussed in the Belgian Senate (at which time various amendments can be proposed) after which an agreed draft was sent to the Chamber of Representatives, where, in turn, the law was further discussed and amended. The Chamber of Representatives has the capacity to eventually pass the law which is then, symbolically, signed by the King of the Belgians. More recently, the role of the Belgian Senate has been changed and diminished, but this is not relevant here.

  4. 4.

    This study looked at euthanasia for children aged one to seventeen, so this may include patients who were never able to make a request due to their young age.

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Correspondence to Kasper Raus.

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Raus, K. The Extension of Belgium’s Euthanasia Law to Include Competent Minors. Bioethical Inquiry 13, 305–315 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-016-9705-5

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Keywords

  • Euthanasia
  • Minors
  • Belgium
  • Ethical reflections