There has been enormous controversy in Belgium over the past several weeks over the recent legalisation of euthanisation of children. Although euthanisation of adults is already legal in both Belgium and several other countries, Belgium is now the world’s first country to allow child euthanasia – though it has been legal in some countries in the past, for example in Germany from 1939 to 1945.
Originally the bill went as far as to allow euthanisation of children who merely felt tired of life or suffered from anorexia. However, thanks to the efforts of MPs from the Christian Democrat Party, the scope of the bill was limited just to children suffering from severe illnesses or disabilities.
This piece of legislation raises enormous moral issues. Some supporters of child euthanasia will argue that children suffering from disabilities or severe illnesses may be a burden on their families and that they are likely to require a lot of costly medical care and thus also be a burden on the state and the taxpayer.
But this raises the question of whether we in the West have become such a materialistic civilisation that we value people only by their contribution to Gross Domestic Product. Is the life of an individual who generates millions in tax revenues for the state over their lifetime more valuable than the life of somebody who is in constant need of support from the state due to their illness?
I would argue that every life is a precious gift which should be treasured and not cast aside because it is perceived by some to be flawed or imperfect. Also, what many forget is the fact that many people with disabilities live long and fruitful lives. Disabilities did not stop Stephen Hawking from becoming one of the world’s leading physicists, nor did they stop Franklin Roosevelt leading the US through the Second World War.
The bill includes a section stating that children must understand what euthanasia is, and their parents must approve the child’s request to die. An argument made in support of the policy is that the right of an individual – including a child – to choose whether to end their life is of fundamental importance. They argue that to restrict such a right is a restriction of freedom.
Feike van den Oever who works on the children’s oncology ward at a Belgian hospital, and whose own son died of cancer when he was eight, challenges this argument. He says:
“Children try to understand what is going on. Does that mean they gain competence to decide or request that kind of solution [euthanasia]? No. Not in my view.”
Freedom is not an intrinsic good. It is highly questionable whether an eight year old suffering from a severe illness has sufficient knowledge to use the freedom granted to them by this law to make an informed decision about the ending of their life.
While child euthanasia is inherently wrong, the fact that legalisation has become a reality is merely a consequence of an overall trend in the Western world away from valuing human life. In the same way that in our wealthy society we simply dispose of any items we feel we don’t need or we perceive to be flawed, our society increasingly views human life as something which we have the right to discard. How much respect for life and our fellow human beings should be sacrificed at the altar of so-called progressivism?