Two children, aged nine and 11, have become the world’s youngest to be euthanised, according to a report.
The unnamed minors were administered lethal injections in Belgium, which has the world’s only law allowing terminally ill children in “unbearable suffering” to choose to die.
Their deaths, which occurred in 2016 or 2017, were revealed in a report from the CFCEE; the commission that regulates euthanasia in Belgium, and their ages were confirmed by a Belgian official.
It confirmed that Belgian doctors had given lethal injections to three children over the two-year period, including to a 17-year-old who was suffering from muscular dystrophy.
The nine-year-old, who had a brain tumour, and the 11-year-old, who was suffering from cystic fibrosis, were the first children under 12 to be euthanised anywhere, a member of the CFCEE told The Washington Post.
One of the most permissive countries in the world, Belgium amended its euthanasia law in 2014 to make it legal for doctors to terminate the life of a child, however young, who makes the request.
They must be judged to have the mental capacity to make the decision and receive parental consent.
Supporters of the law say a child should not be made to suffer against their will but opponents say children are too young to make the decision to die.
The July 17 report notes that three minors were among thousands of people to have died under Belgium’s radical euthanasia regime between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2017.
It merely describes all three as under 18 but a Belgian official has now disclosed their ages to the Washington Post.
Luc Proot, a member of the CFCEE, defended the decision to authorise the young euthanasia cases, saying: “I saw mental and physical suffering so overwhelming that I thought we did a good thing.”
For euthanasia to proceed in Belgium, doctors must first verify that a child is “in a hopeless medical situation of constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and which will cause death in the short term.”
Once a child has expressed a wish for euthanasia in writing, child psychiatrists conduct examinations, including intelligence tests, to determine their level of discernment and ensure they were “not influenced by a third party.” Parents can, however, overuse their request.
Belgium’s decision to extend its euthanasia laws to all minors provoked outrage in the country and abroad.
Belgium’s bishops called the law “a step too far”, while a group of 162 Belgian paediatricians wrote: “We are today able to perfectly control physical pain, choking or anxiety at the approach of death.”
Prof Stefaan Van Gool, a child cancer specialist in Belgium, said: "There is, in fact, no objective tool today available that really can help you say ‘this child has the full competence or capacity to give with full understanding informed consent’."
Wim Distelmans, head of the Belgian euthanasia commission countered: “Thankfully, there are very few children who fit the criteria, but that doesn’t mean that we should refuse (them) the right to die with dignity.”
The annual number of euthanasia cases across all age groups has multiplied almost five-fold in ten years in Belgium.
Of the 4,337 to opt for assisted dying in Belgium in 2016 and 2017, most were cancer patients.
However 710 were mainly elderly people who suffered from comparatively minor complaints such as blindness and incontinence. Some 77 chose to die because of unbearable psychiatric suffering. A further 19 young people between 18 and 29 decided to end their lives.
Last year, neurologist Dr Ludo Vanopdenbosch resigned from the CFCEE, in protest at the failure to prosecute when a dementia patient’s life was terminated without her prior consent.
Since then, 360 Belgian doctors, academics and others have signed a petition calling for tighter controls on euthanasia for psychiatric patients.
Despite the controversy, there is widespread backing for Belgium’s euthanasia legislation, polls suggest.