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Should Children Have the Right to Die?

When a terminally ill 17-year-old became the first minor to exercise the right to die in Belgium, a public outcry ensued, with some saying that the removal of an age limit on euthanasia denies children the right to life. In fact, Belgium's law strengthens that right.

PRINCETON – Since 2002, Belgium has permitted terminally or incurably ill adults to request and receive euthanasia from a doctor. In February 2014, the Belgian parliament removed the provision of the country’s law on euthanasia that restricted the law’s use to adults. That led to an outcry.

Predictably, the uproar resumed last month when the first minor requested and received euthanasia. Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, speaking on Radio Vatican, said that the Belgian law denies children the right to life. But the circumstances of the case, and the fact that it took two and a half years for this to happen, show just the opposite: the Belgian law respects the right to life – and, in carefully defined circumstances, the right to die.

Although Belgium’s euthanasia law now has no specific age requirement – thus differing from Dutch legislation, which permits doctors to provide euthanasia, on request, to minors who are at least 12 years old – it does require the person requesting euthanasia to have a demonstrable capacity for rational decision-making. This effectively excludes very small children from the law’s scope. The request must be examined by a team of doctors and a psychiatrist or psychologist, and requires the approval of the minor’s parents. The minor has to be “in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short term.”

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