Belgium’s ‘right to die’ for children: a slippery slope?

Sunday 19 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Pit Theatre, Barbican Biomedical Battles

This year, the Belgian government legalised euthanasia for minors with incurable diseases in a move described by one senior politician as ‘the ultimate gesture of humanity’. While its advocates have been careful to emphasise that the policy is intended only for children in extreme circumstances, requiring parental consent and psychiatric assessment, some commentators have expressed concern about its implementation in the wake of several controversial instances of adults receiving voluntary euthanasia to alleviate severe emotional distress, rather than terminal physical suffering. Yet despite the international controversy such measures generate, right-to-die campaigners counter that such policies have support among the general population and across several European neighbours, including the Netherlands and Luxembourg (where the lower age limit is 12), and that the number of adults seeking such services is steadily growing: a recent Dutch petition called for access to be granted to those over 70 who are ‘tired of life’.

Right-to-die campaigners in the UK emphasise that such euthanasia-on-demand legislation differs vastly from calls for assisted dying. They stress that the measures proposed in Lord Falconer’s proposed Assisted Dying Bill closely follow the model tried in tested in Oregon, with strict legal safeguards to ensure that assisted dying is available only as a humane last resort to adults facing immediate suffering from terminal illness. Yet opponents contend that there is no obvious reason why the UK is any more likely to follow the US rather than a European model in the future. It is argued for some that a growing cultural demand for ‘a good death’ can only lead to further extensions of assisted dying to those, young or old, facing a broad category of profound mental and physical anguish.

Are highly liberal attitudes to voluntary euthanasia in the Benelux a culturally specific exception, or a slippery slope once assisted dying is given official validation? If we view assisted dying as a humane act to give certain patients autonomy in the face of debilitating illness, on what basis do we draw distinctions between physical and mental pain? Where do we set the age of responsibility? How much can we learn from differing cultural attitudes to dying and the medical establishment in countries which already offer some form of euthanasia?

Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor
chair in politics, University of Hull

Professor Onora O’Neill
chair, UK Equality and Human Rights Commission; crossbench member of the House of Lords

Professor Jutte van der Werff ten Bosch
Head of Peadiatric Hemato-Oncology, UZ Brussel

Dr Kevin Yuill
senior lecturer, history, University of Sunderland; author, Assisted Suicide: the liberal, humanist case against legalization

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Kevin Yuill senior lecturer, history, University of Sunderland; author, Assisted Suicide: the liberal, humanist case against legalization
Recommended readings
The Terminal Confusion of Dignity in Dying’

The closer you look at the campaign to legalise assisted dying, the less reassuring it all becomes

Jenny McCartney, Spectator, 5 July 2014

Do children have the right to die?

In deciding if children should be able to request euthanasia, we cannot assume they are incapable of making choices

Susan Dwyer, Al Jazeera, 26 February 2014

Euthanasia for children: a new low in the Low Countries

Belgium’s extension of the ‘right to die’ to terminally ill children reveals the slippery slope of legalising assisted dying.

Kevin Yuill, spiked, 18 February 2014

The evolution of the ‘right to die’

What happens when assisted-suicide campaigners achieve their aims of legalisation? Do they go home and say ‘job well done’? Or do they continue to campaign for euthanasia and assisted suicide to be extended to more and more people?

Kevin Yuill, spiked, 13 December 2013

Should young children have the right to die?

Few situations could be more distressing. Femke, a girl aged 14, has terminal bone cancer, cannot tolerate the pain and wants to die. The Belgian government is proposing to grant such a wish

Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 6 November 2013

Euthanasia Policy and Practice in Belgium: Critical Observations and Suggestions for Improvement

Some background information about the context of euthanasia in Belgium.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, Institut Européen de Bioéthique

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Session partners