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Posted by on Feb 15, 2014 in Featured, Philosophy | 2 comments

DignitySA on Belgium’s child euthanasia decision

Assisted suicideThis is too interesting an issue to be posted on Facebook alone, so I’d like to share Prof. Sean Davison’s (of a South African right-to-die advocacy group, DignitySA) comment on Belgium’s recent Parliamentary vote to approve (voluntary) euthanasia for children. I support voluntary euthanasia, and in a local context, support Davison and DignitySA’s efforts in campaigning for a right to die in South Africa. (If you’re a South African reader, you might want to “like” DignitySA on Facebook, and/or become a member via the DignitySA website).

What the Belgian Parliament has voted to allow is unprecedented, in the sense that it will allow for voluntary euthanasia (in short, you choose to die – we’re not talking about “pulling the plug” on a comatose person) for a child of any age, rather than only children of a certain age (in the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia is permitted for children 12 and older).

On their Facebook page, Davison offered this comment:

I can understand that the Belgian law makers were motivated by compassion when passing this law but it is hard to believe that a child has the capacity to make an informed decision about whether to live or die when adults struggle with the concept. So often an adult who has chosen to end their life when terminally ill will cling on and cling on, unable to follow through with their decision. How can a young child be expected to make such a decision?

Our culture and humanity has determined the age when a person is responsible and mature enough to be able to vote, to join the army and die for the country, and to get married.

It is this same responsibility and maturity a person needs to be able to make a decision on whether to live or die. This is not a choice that should be given to a child.”

I can understand a conservative stance on this, but don’t agree with it. Ages of maturity are convenient fictions that correlate with competencies of various sorts, yes – but we use those convenient fictions only because it’s too time and labour-intensive (or, practically impossible) to determine whether the competencies actually exist in individuals.

At the age of (roughly) 16 (or 18), we know that most humans will be safe enough drivers, or responsible enough drinkers, etc. If we had the means, money and time, we’d want to be able to test 15 year-olds to see whether they were capable of these things, just as we’d want to test 19 year-olds and deny them these rights, if they aren’t capable of using them responsibly. At least, that’s my view.

Assisted suicide is one of those issues where the demand is so low, and infrequent, that the relevant competencies can arguably be tested directly, allowing us to do away with the convenient fictions.

In this case, the Belgian Parliament has ruled that “Children, just as adults do now, will need to go through extensive psychological evaluations with multiple doctors. Parental consent will be required as well as a written request by the patient.” For comparative purposes, consider that in the Netherlands (for children 12 and older), only 5 children have met these criteria and chosen suicide since 2002, so there’s no reason to believe this is creating a slippery slope.

As difficult as these decisions are – even more so for people we regard as more vulnerable – the Belgian stance seems logically consistent, and reasonable. Having said that, I’m sympathetic to the caution. It’s just that we’re not going to fix all our our anachronistic moral standards without some moral courage.