Belgium's chilly detachment from the sick and dependent is widening

Belgium has taken the shocking but unsurprising step of legalising euthanasia for children. The law stipulates that the child must be terminally ill, incurably suffering and possess complete understanding of what euthanasia means.

Campaigners for “assisted dying” often point out that the majority of people would back an assisted suicide law in this country. Possibly. But I wonder, though, where the majority of Brits would stand on Belgium’s latest decision.

After all, this latest piece of legislation is not only about the morality of euthanasia per se. It also concerns the ethical, mental and spiritual capacity of children to make life and death decisions. If a 10-year-old with cancer repeatedly says “Mum, Dad, I want to die” is she mentally and morally equipped to understand what she is consenting to?

In Britain there are commendable efforts to prevent the sexual abuse of children through a culture of information and education about the nature of consent. The intention to protect children from abuse is a crucial one.

Belgium and Britain both set the age of consent at 16. The legal status quo suggests that we recognise the vulnerability of children, that they are susceptible to both external and internal coercion and, in the worst instances, outright abuse. Implicit in this law is the realisation that children of a certain age are not yet ready to make serious decisions, which are not based on ignorance, manipulation or coercion.

The vast majority of people in Britain would accept that it is right that our laws recognise that under a certain age full and knowing consent is impossible. Even those who would wish to see a euthanasia law like Belgium’s introduced in this country would surely then draw the line at licensing this practice for children on the basis that no child could satisfy the “safeguard” of completely comprehending what they are consenting to.

Among the majority of normal human beings there is an inalienable instinct to protect our young. We frame our behaviour, our laws and our social mores around this instinct. Children require love but above all protection. This necessity is the essence of what it means to be a child.

Of course it is a tragedy when terminal illness and suffering is a feature of one’s childhood. But to pass a law, which allows children the legal autonomy to effectively pull the trigger on themselves, takes this tragedy to abhorrent extremes.

The introduction of this law is horrifying because it illustrates that Belgium’s chilly detachment from the sick and dependent is widening. But it represents something else: through the Belgian parliament’s stated desire to abolish suffering at all costs they have effectively eradicated something else: society’s recognition of a right to a childhood. This should horrify us all.