current affairs

Belgium’s child euthanasia law ignites debate

Belgium is one of three countries in the world which legally allows euthanasia, and now the laws have been changed so it is now also available to children.

Belgium is one of three countries in the world which legally allows euthanasia, and now the laws have been changed so it is now also available to children. The controversial measure has sparked many moral and legal debates over the issue of euthanasia that has already been in the news in recent years.

Cases such as that of Tony Nicklinson will not be forgotten any time soon.

The vote in the House of Representatives indicated that an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians voted in favour of the law, which will now mean a child can make repeated requests, with the agreement of parents and physicians, to legally end their life.

With such colossal change taking place, it piques the question as to whether Britain would ever be so bold as to follow suit.

The debate on ethics

The many arguments for and against euthanasia have been the subject of much press and the Bland case is one which garners much attention. Tony Bland had been crushed in the Hillsborough Disaster and, as a result, was in a persistent vegetative state. The House of Lords decided that it was legal for his feeding tubes to be withdrawn, allowing him to die through passive euthanasia.

There was both criticism and support for the decision, with the issue of sanctity of life pitted against quality of life and autonomy. The judges ultimately decided that passive euthanasia was to be allowed as it was in the best interests of the patient as he would not recover from the state he was in. 

The more recent case of Tony Nicklinson case was about active euthanasia. Mr Nicklinson had locked-in syndrome and so had an active mind but paralysed body, meaning he required constant care. The High Court ruled that it would not be legal for doctors to help end his life and Tony Nicklinson died a few days after the ruling due to pneumonia.

However, the legal position has not been altered and euthanasia remains illegal, although his family continued the court battle.

Questions from many sides

Judges seem somewhat wary of making such a decision which would alter the legal stance on an issue which is so contentious and would have huge legal, ethical and social implications. Whilst judges can intervene in cases on life and death, it is up to the elected body of Parliament to make decisions on these matters.

Indeed, there will undoubtedly be disagreements within Parliament, who have been democratically elected and so it seems unjust to allow unelected judges make these decisions and set precedents for future cases.

It seems unlikely that Britain will make the decision to legalise euthanasia due to various reasons, including religion, the idea of it being a “slippery slope” and the medical ethics problems. Cases thus far show how reluctant the courts are to legalise euthanasia, with the decisions seeming to stem from worries about the precedential value it will set for the future.

Whilst there are views that autonomy must be respected, there are worries that legalisation will lead to unintentional changes in the NHS and a change in social attitude as well as the attitude of medical professionals which will be irreversible.

And so, with many questioning whether Britain will ever change the legal position on euthanasia it seems that whilst it will remain a contentious issue, it seems unlikely that we will be following Belgium on the matter. Legalising euthanasia will be debated for many more years to come and decided on a case by case basis, I think.

If Britain has taken so long and still continues to refrain from legalising euthanasia, it seems incredibly improbable that child euthanasia will be a decriminalised in the near future, or even at all. 

What do you think? Should the UK follow suit with Belgium on euthanasia? Have your say in the comments section below.