Belgium euthanasia battle continues

Opponents to petition King Philippe

Ordinary Belgians have begun to mobilise since the February 13 vote which made their country the first in the world to sanction euthanasia for minors with no age restriction.

Following passage of the Bill by the House of Representatives – by 86 to 44 votes – a major petition drive was launched by those who had earlier protested outside parliament against moves to allow doctors to end the lives of terminally ill children.  The petition, it is hoped, will gain enough signatures to convince King Philippe of Belgium not to sign the Bill into law, as is required, but to refer the legislation back to parliament. Backers of the petition hope that this can be done in time for the legislation to fall victim to the political shift towards forthcoming elections, effectively buying time for a concerted drive against it. At least one poll in the country reveals that 55% of voters are against the extension of euthanasia proposed, something all parties must surely be mindful of if they face arguing the legislation on the campaign trail. (Euthanasia is already legal in Belgium, where figures for 2012 reveal that 1,432 adults died in this way in that year. The method of dying is also legal in neighbouring Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The latter nation has already extended euthanasia to minors, but with a lower age limit of 12.)

Despite arguments from supporters of the Bill that major safeguards have been built in to prevent ‘abuse’ of the law, including a requirement that a child must fully recognise what euthanasia means for them, opponents have repeatedly challenged the capacity of a child on this front. One group against the legislation, comprising 160 paediatricians had earlier argued that "in practice, there is no objective method for determining whether a child is gifted with the ability of discernment and judgment. This is actually a largely subjective assessment and subject to influences."

The opponents have, naturally, included leaders of faith communities too. As far back as November, as debate raged, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Brussels and president of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, joined with Jewish and Muslim leaders in condemning the Bill and insisting that “to suggest minors can decide on their own euthanasia is to falsify their power of judgment and their freedom”.

When words failed to sway parliamentarians, Archbishop Leonard, in conjunction with his auxiliary bishops led a prayer and fasting campaign, encouraging deaneries, basilicas and shrines across the Brussels archdiocese to follow suit.

As The Irish Catholic went to press this week, the final signature of King Philippe was still awaited, while thousands more were being speedily gathered in opposition.

In all of this, opponents hope that their monarch will demonstrate the strength of resolve of his predecessor and uncle, King Baudouin, who sparked political turmoil when, in 1990 he refused to sign legislation to further liberalise the abortion regime in Belgium, citing his Catholicism. He was briefly suspended from power for his stance, while parliament assumed his powers to push through the legislation.