Belgium is coming under scrutiny as reports emerge detailing the number of people legally put to death in that nation through euthanasia, including children as young as 9 and 11.
Along with its neighbor, The Netherlands, the northeastern European nation is known for its relatively loose policies on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. At present, Belgium is the only nation that allows doctors to end a child's life, regardless of age, if the child makes a request to die. This came about when the government amended its euthanasia law in 2014; the practice of euthanasia has been legal there since 2002.
The Washington Post noted this week that in all of 2016 and 2017, three children younger than 18 were given lethal injections by physicians, according to an official government report released last month.
The eldest of the three was a 17-year-old suffering from muscular dystrophy; the other two were 9 and 11. The 9-year-old had a brain tumor and the 11-year-old had cystic fibrosis. These are the two youngest reported cases of doctor-assisted death worldwide.
"Anyone who is shocked or surprised that the Belgian euthanasia practices have expanded to include children hasn't been paying attention," said Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a secular national disability rights group that opposes legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia based on social justice concerns, in comments emailed to The Christian Post Monday.
"Belgium has been sliding down the slippery slope since the law legalizing euthanasia was passed there. In these particular reports, we really have no idea how 'terminal' these children were — and I doubt that any limitation to 'terminal' will last as a qualifying criterion. There's no requirement for adults be 'terminal' to request euthanasia."
"I have been surprised to read some news accounts that claim these children are the youngest to be euthanized anywhere. The Netherlands has allowed the killing of newborns with disabilities for years," he added, referencing a March 2005 article in the New England Journal of Medicine which described a survey that found that, contrary to Dutch law, some infants with disabilities in that nation had been euthanized.
Advocates of euthanasia maintain that "some children, even very young ones, may possess the same decisional capacity as some adults, and it's therefore discriminatory to deny them the freedom to choose euthanasia based on an arbitrary age limit," The Washington Post reported.
Luc Proot, a member of the euthanasia commission, defended the government's actions, saying that he "saw mental and physical suffering so overwhelming that I thought we did a good thing."
Yet some doctors reject the claim that children are able to and should be allowed to end their lives if they so desire.
"There is, in fact, no objective tool today available that really can help you say 'this child has the full competence or capacity to give with full understanding informed consent," Stefaan Van Gool, a child cancer specialist in Belgium, told The Telegraph.
Aside from the assisted-suicide of minors, more and more adults are opting to be euthanized. Five times as many cases are being reported now compared to 10 years ago. From 2016 to 2017, there were 4,337 people who requested assisted death, the majority of whom were cancer patients.
The rising numbers have alarmed Christian leaders and others, particularly the Catholic Church.
Despite the Catholic Church's stated opposition to euthanasia, some groups, like the Brothers of Charity, were reportedly offering the practice at all 15 of its psychiatric hospital centers. When he learned of it in August 2017, Pope Francis ordered an end to the arrangement, The Christian Post reported at the time.
Rene Stockman, the charity's superior general, who delivered the letter from Francis, said "this is the very first time a Christian organization states that euthanasia is an ordinary medical practice that falls under the physician's therapeutic freedom."
"This is disloyal, outrageous and unacceptable," he said.
Yet the view that euthanasia is an ordinary medical practice has become more normalized in Belgian culture.
Belgian Paralympian Marieke Vervoort, who won a silver medal in the 400m wheelchair race, told reporters in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Paralympic games that she has her "euthanasia papers" but is not ready to die yet. She intends to proceed when she has "more bad days than good days."