When Belgium, on the heels of the Netherlands, passed a measure in 2002 legalizing euthanasia amid fierce opposition, it limited the practice to adults.
Now, 12 years later, after an emotional debate, Belgium’s parliament Thursday voted to make the European nation the first in the world to remove age restrictions on euthanasia.
Americans should take heed, warns a leading opponent of the so-called “aid-in-dying” movement, Rita Marker, who believes activists in the U.S. who helped pass assisted-suicide laws in Oregon and Washington state are similarly monitoring the political winds and moving in incremental steps toward laws with little or no restrictions.
“Belgium is just a poster country for where this goes,” Marker told WND in an interview.
Marker, the author of the influential book on the movement “Deadly Compassion” and executive director of the Patients Rights Council, said that while the major activist groups in the U.S. maintain they are against giving children the “right to die,” the early promoters of euthanasia in the U.S., beginning in the 1930s, were on record in favor of it.
Advocacy and counseling groups such as Compassion and Choices, a successor to the Hemlock Society, she said, haven’t publicly favored including children “because they know it wouldn’t go anywhere.”
“You can’t get something passed like this all at once. You have to take it gradually, and that’s exactly what they are doing,” Marker said.
“They are smart. They are super savvy people, and they know exactly how to deal with the political landscape.”
Marker said the Belgian law is a logical progression, because it’s hard to argue that people should maintain their personal autonomy and have the right to avoid suffering, but children should be excluded.
“Once you have passed any law permitting euthanasia or doctor-prescribed suicide, you have essentially taken down all barriers,” she said. “The ones that are up are just window dressing.”
Sean Crowley, spokesman for Compassion and Choices, told WND he didn’t want to engage in any discussion about the Belgian law, because his group doesn’t support euthanasia and it advocates physician-assisted suicide, or what it calls “aid in dying,” only for adults.
“We’re all about patient control,” he explained, “In euthanasia, the patient loses control; they’re not calling the shots.”
Belgium’s medical community is split over the issue, with proponents of the law arguing that children in rare cases of unbearable and irreversible suffering should have the same right as an adult.
The new amendment permits euthanasia for terminally ill children near death who are experiencing “constant and unbearable suffering” and can demonstrate a “capacity of discernment.”
Religious groups opposed the law, and more than 170 Belgian pediatricians signed an open letter to parliament asking for a delay in the vote.
A recent poll, however, found 75 percent of Belgians in favor of extending the law to children.
Along with the Netherlands, euthanasia is also legal in neighboring Luxembourg. Switzerland has passed an assisted-suicide law.
In the U.S., the first victory for activists in a state-by-state strategy came with a ballot initiative in 1994 in Oregon. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that physician-assisted suicide is not a constitutional right, the court left open the door for states to address the issue. Washington state passed its Death with Dignity Act in 2008, 17 years after a ballot initiative sponsored by the Hemlock Society failed. Vermont passed a law last year based on Oregon’s, and a Montana Supreme Court decision brought de facto legalization to the state. In January, a district court judge in New Mexico a ban on “aid in dying” violated the state constitution.
‘Anyone can be manipulated’
One of the primary arguments for restricting euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide to adults is that children can be easily manipulated, but Marker argues adults can be manipulated as well.
“Anyone can be manipulated. You can have adults be manipulated because they feel as though they are a burden on others,” she said.
Right-to-die activists have persuaded many with emotional arguments. A Belgian doctor cited by Time magazine as a proponent of the new law pointed to the case of a child with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy who faced a degeneration of muscles that would eventually cause suffocation.
But Marker argued that proponents base their arguments on rare, worst-case scenarios while the Belgian law has in mind any child who is considered terminally ill.
“The way terminal illness and suffering is defined is very, very broad,” she said. “We know in Belgium already it can include emotional suffering, mental suffering and physical suffering.
Marker said there is “no question that we have to do everything to end suffering, but to say that you then give doctors the power to prescribe a lethal injection or to prescribe a deadly overdose of drugs is like saying we must end unemployment by making sure anybody who is unemployed dies.”
She noted a Newsweek story in December that told of a professor in Belgium who had “the talk” with a 10-year-old son. Not the sex talk, but a talk about the “option” of euthanasia, even though the child was not sick.
“What kind of message does that send?” Marker asked.
“When you have a doctor telling you, ‘I can provide you with pain control, here is your treatment, and I can provide you with lethal pain injection, or a prescription for phenobarbital … it’s laid out as if they are all equal,” she said.
“When a doctor is essentially saying it’s just as good if I care for you or kill you, what does that say?”
She pointed to further problems when people are faced with mounting medical costs.
“We know that people who pay for medical care or people who are sick are much more apt to authorize payment for the least expensive treatment,” she said.
Step by step
Maker offered evidence that “aid in dying” advocates are employing an incremental approach.
She noted that when Compassion and Choices proposed Initiative 119 in Washington state in 1991, it advocated both lethal injection and assisted suicide. The measure failed 54 to 46 percent.
A similar bill in California the next year, Proposition 161, also failed.
Marker said that television commercials in California and Washington showing syringe-wielding physicians were effective, and when a measure finally passed in Oregon in 1994, it was physician-assisted suicide only.
After the Oregon bill passed, the then-legal counsel for Compassion and Choices, Kathryn Tucker, acknowledged in a speech at Seattle Pacific University that to pass assisted-suicide laws, some restrictions are necessary to “convince people” that the law is “suitably protective.”
“They know that you can’t push it too fast,” Marker said. “You have to take it step by step, and that is exactly what they are doing.”
The first advocates of euthanasia in the U.S. in the 20th century proposed allowing it for children.
A year after the Euthanasia Society of America was formed in 1938, it urged legalizing “the termination of human life by painless means for the purpose of avoiding unnecessary suffering.”
Charles Nixdorff, the society’s treasurer, acknowledged the measure was limited to voluntary euthanasia because the public couldn’t accept incorporating children and “incompetents,” the New York Times reported at the time.
However, the article noted that the society “hoped eventually to legalize the putting to death of non-volunteers beyond the help of medical science.”
The euthanasia society’s president, Dr. Foster Kennedy, insisted euthanasia was “needed mainly for defectives” and advocated the “legalizing of euthanasia primarily in cases of born defectives who are doomed to remain defective, rather than for normal persons who have become miserable through incurable illness.”
In 1942, Kennedy proposed a plan for child euthanasia in an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
“I believe when the defective child shall have reached the age of five years – and on the application of his guardians – that the case should be considered under law by a competent medical board.”
He said if the board determined the child had “no future or hope of one … then I believe it is a merciful and kindly thing to relieve that defective – often tortured and convulsed, grotesque and absurd, useless and foolish, and entirely undesirable – of the agony of living.”
Marker noted that the idea of mercy killing for children became part of “respectable debate” in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1989, the influential University of Iowa College of Law drafted a model law in which “aid-in-dying” could be demanded for terminally ill children by their parents or by terminally ill children along with their parents.
In 1993, 900 parents whose children were patients at several Cleveland area health facilities were asked to fill out a “Pediatrics Ethics Survey” that offered the “options” of lethal injections and mercy killing.
In 1999, Princeton University, a Presbyterian Church institution, hired Australian philosopher Peter Singer as a professor in bioethics.
A well-known advocate of infanticide and euthanasia, Singer infamously declared in a 1983 article that a pig had greater value than a handicapped newborn.
Responding to a flood of criticism for the hire, Princeton’s president issued a statement saying that while faculty members “may disagree with him on some issues … they have deep respect for his scholarship and invariably find his work instructive.”