Euthanasia in the case of the elderly and terminally ill is controversial in America, especially as the population ages and medical technology improves. However, euthanasia-friendly Europe puts the US in perspective: an overwhelming majority of Belgians support a proposed euthanasia law with no age restrictions.
Many in America argue that there is no such thing as an individual "right to die," a concept that is particularly opposed by the religious community. Yet others who see dying loved ones in extreme physical pain and unable to perform basic functions of life argue that euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide, is the humane option. The artist behind the popular workplace-themed comic strip Dilbert evoked both compassion and anger when he wrote passionately in favor of euthanasia last month (emphasis mine):
My father, age 86, is on the final approach to the long dirt nap (to use his own phrase). His mind is 98% gone, and all he has left is hours or possibly months of hideous unpleasantness in a hospital bed. I'll spare you the details, but it's as close to a living Hell as you can get.
If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon.
Because it's not too soon. It's far too late. His smallish estate pays about $8,000 per month to keep him in this state of perpetual suffering. Rarely has money been so poorly spent.
I'd like to proactively end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But my government says I can't make that decision. Neither can his doctors. So, for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.
He goes on to say that any politician and any citizen who has actively supported laws against physician-assisted suicide in the US deserves to "die a long, horrible death."
Anecdotes like those complicate the debate in America. However, the most unwavering opponents of euthanasia often cite a "slippery slope" argument, which holds that if euthanasia is permitted in cases that are voluntary and extreme then it will inevitably expand to a much broader range of cases as well. Their position has only been strengthened by the recent developments in Europe.
The Agence-France Presse reports that euthanasia has been legal for anyone over 18 in Belgium since 2002. Overall, 75 percent of Belgians support a new proposed law to remove age restrictions on assisted suicide decisions, which also has the backing of the country's medical community. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders lead the minority opposition, but the law is expected to pass despite their efforts. Any child who wants to be euthanized after the law's passage would need to meet the following conditions:
- Grounds including: a terminal illness, great pain, and no alleviating treatment
- Parental consent
- Approval of the patient's medical team
In the absence of an age limit, the legislation will establish a guideline for maturity that is widely open to interpretation:
"The Belgian legislation does not set an age limit but states that the patient has to be conscious of their situation and understand the meaning of a request for euthanasia."
Critics have pointed to echos of Nazi Germany-era "cleansing" and the consequences that child euthanasia will have for society's moral foundations, including the "trivialization" of death. The non-specific definitions of the legislation also hold the potential for abuse. However, defenders of the law claim that dying children can have maturity beyond their years and should not be denied the dignity of the right to die.
America is watching Europe and Canada, and has looked to Belgium in the past to see what the consequences may be of legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Regardless of one's opinion on euthanasia, it would be foolish to ignore the consequences it has had in countries like Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other test cases when making decisions for our own country's future.