Does silence before Belgium's new euthanasia law mean consent?

Paul Russell
20 February 2014
Reproduced with Permission

The Belgian Parliament amended its euthanasia law on February 14, making it available to children. One commentator incorrectly, but poignantly, called it a 'Valentine's Day Massacre'. Most, however, questioned whether children were capable of making such serious decisions.

Against the proposal was a group of 200 Belgian paediatricians and a group from within the Assembly of the Council of Europe. The International Children's Palliative Care Network (ICPCN) issued a declaration from their international conference in Mumbai in the days before the vote. The ICPCN was clear: euthanasia is not part of palliative care and is not an alternative to palliative care.

While our thoughts go out to our Belgian colleagues and friends who fought valiantly against this latest bill, other Belgians, like Bart Sturtewagen, the Chief Editor of De Standaard newspaper - one of Belgium's largest daily newspapers - seemed more than a little angry at the international attention.

"I'm annoyed at hearing 'you'll kill children' in the foreign media. We don't use that kind of language anymore. It's a very different debate on a different level," he said. Sturtewagen was responding to comments such as this one from US publishing executive Steve Forbes who wrote in an opinion piece last month: "We are on the malignantly slippery slope to becoming a society like that envisioned by Nazi Germany, one in which 'undesirables' are disposed of like used tissue."

The subtle and not-so-subtle references elsewhere to the Nazi regime and the pre-war death program for those considered by the regime to be 'unworthy of life' must have been galling. The group statement from members of the Assembly of the Council for Europe said that child euthanasia, "promotes the unacceptable belief that a life can be unworthy of life which challenges the very basis of civilised society."

Sturtewagen also told the Reuters network that after 12 years of legal euthanasia in the country, Belgians had grown used to it as an option for the final stages of their lives.

Australian academics Ben White and Lindy Wilmott, who support euthanasia and assisted suicide, tried to dismiss the Belgian news in an article on The Conversation: "Belgium is literally on the other side of the world in terms of this issue, due in part to a different culture and history in this field." All cultures vary by degrees, but one would have thought that the Nazi experience of last century would have informed Belgian culture a great deal - even 60-plus years on. More to the point, though, 12 years of experience in killing people, as Sturtewagen observed.

Other pro-euthanasia commentators have been less defensive - but most have been utterly silent. Sean Davidson of the pro-euthanasia group Dignity South Africa made the only comments I can find in the Anglophone world from pro-euthanasia groups actually condemning the move. (Davidson was tried and found guilty in 2011 of assisting his mother to die in New Zealand.) He told the Volksblad newspaper: "it is hard to believe that a child is able to make an informed decision about his or her life, while there are adults who find it difficult." (Google translation from Afrikaans).

But he also told Volksblad that "Adults do not always understand the concept of euthanasia". In other words, it really can't be made safe, no matter safeguards exist.

So the dilemma faced by pro-euthanasia groups across the globe is how to respond to Belgium's new law. I searched pro-euthanasia websites in the UK, Australia, the USA and Canada and found no commentary on child euthanasia.

What should they do? Condemn the Belgian move because their focus is on adults? Or let their silence imply consent? How do they rebut allegations of the slippery slope now? It certainly seems to prove, all but conclusively, that once killing is allowed for one category of people, the false rhetoric of compassion tumbles the barriers for the others.