Belgian lawmakers extend euthanasia to children under 18

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BRUSSELS -- Belgian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to extend the country's euthanasia law to children under 18.

The law empowers children with terminal ailments who are in great pain to ask to be put to death by their doctor if their parents agree, and if a psychiatrist or psychologist certifies that they are conscious of what their choice signifies.

The measure has wide public support, but was opposed by some pediatricians and Belgium's Roman Catholic clergy. As House of Representative members cast their ballots, and an electronic tally board lit up with enough green lights to indicate that the measure would carry, a lone protester in the chamber shouted "assassins!"

Hans Bonte, a Socialist, said no House member hopes that the law will ever be applied. But he said all Belgians, including minors, deserved the right to "bid farewell to life in humane circumstances," without having to fear that they were breaking the law.

Socialist House member Karine Lalieux said, "Our responsibility is to allow everybody to live, but also to die, in dignity."

The 86-44 vote in the House, with 12 abstentions, followed Senate approval in December.

Laurent Louis, an independent House member who opposed the legislation, said the majority of his colleagues were violating the natural order. "A child is to be nurtured and protected, all the way to the end, whatever happens," he said. "You don't kill it."

Christian Democrat Sonja Becq denounced the change, saying modern science is capable of relieving pain in very sick children until their illness runs its natural course. "We cannot accept that euthanasia be presented as a 'happy ending,' " she said.

Another House member, Catherine Fonck, said the legislation was riddled with flaws and didn't address the possibility that one parent may favor euthanasia, while the other is opposed.

All 13 proposed amendments seeking changes in the bill were defeated.

Does near death mean "three days, three weeks, six months?" asked Steven Vanackere, another Christian Democrat.

Daniel Bacquelaine, a leader of the centrist Reform Movement, tried to assuage the opponent' fears. "Where there is the smallest doubt about the discernment of the child, the question of euthanasia will not be posed," he said. The same goes when there is a glimmer of medical hope for the patient's survival, he said.

Mr. Bacquelaine, who is also a physician, said it is wrong to think that life and death questions should be reserved for adults. He stressed that the law imposed no obligations, and that no child, family or doctor would be forced to apply it.

The law will take effect when signed by King Philippe. The Belgian monarch is not expected to oppose the measure, said Jean-Jacques De Gucht, a co-sponsor.

Belgium's euthanasia law, passed in 2002, previously applied only to legal adults. The neighboring Netherlands allows euthanasia for children as young as 12, providing their families agree.

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