One of the foremost principles of common law is that minors, or individuals under the age of 18, are unable to enter into legally binding contracts. For good reason, the law treats children and teenagers as lacking the capacity to make important financial and medical decisions pertaining to their long-term well-being.
The lack of legal capacity for minors underscores the shocking nature of the Belgium parliament’s decision last week to legalize euthanasia, the practice of intentionally ending a life, for children.
Passed on a 86-44 vote by the lower house, the law would allow terminally ill children who are experiencing “constant and unbearable suffering” to communicate their wish to be killed. An extension of the 2002 Belgian law allowing euthanasia for adults, the new measure was passed by the upper house of parliament in December. It now goes to King Philippe for his signature. Some have urged him to take the unusual position of refusing to sign the measure.
The bill — which makes Belgium the first country in the world to lift all age barriers for euthanasia — has led to impassioned controversy from critics in Belgium and around the world.
"(Minors) can't drink before they're 16. They can't smoke before they're 16. They can't vote before they're 18. They can't marry before they're 18. They can't be punished because they don't have the competence,” said Els Van Hoof, a senator with the Flemish Christian Democratic party, was quoted by National Public Radio. “But when they talk about life and death, they can decide? It's not coherent.”
“We are suffering together with these children to get through the most difficult moments of life, but at such time what we deliver to these children is care,” said Dr. Stefaan Van Gool, a pediatrician at the University of Leuven, as quoted in Time. “We have children who do exams up to two days before they die. They are children that always dream about a future, although this future may only be a few hours.”
There can be little doubt that euthanasia for adults is a contentious and impassioned topic. Only four of the United States permit it by statute: Montana, Oregon, Washington and Vermont. In New Mexico, a federal district court last month authorized doctors to provide lethal prescriptions, declaring that there is an individual right for “a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying.” And this week, the Canadian province of Quebec is debating a comprehensive euthanasia measure. It is modeled after the Belgian law of 2002.
We believe that there can be no liberty without life. The promise of the Declaration of Independence, that all people “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” presupposes life. Indeed, the very notion of an “inalienable right” is a right that cannot be abrogated. That right — that right to one’s own life, or the right to one’s own liberty — is not a right that may be abrogated, and still continue to exist.
Putting aside the many hard questions that exist in dealing with euthanasia for adults, there should be little debate that it is unsuitable for children.