Belgium’s Folly: Why the Right to Die Does Not Rightfully Belong to Children

The “slippery slope” is generally a bogus rhetorical tactic. During the national debates over gay marriage, for example, opponents frequently wailed, “What’s next? A guy marrying his horse?”

Or more darkly they asked, “Will we allow a guy to marry a child?” To which I snorted, “No, of course not. We’re bright enough to distinguish between consenting adults and an adult imposing his will on a child.”

But are we? Comes now Belgium to challenge that view. As Charles Lane reports in the Washington Post, the capital of the European Union, having legalized voluntary euthanasia for all in 2014, has just released a report indicating that three children, one just nine years old, have been put to death in the years since. Each had a fatal disease, and each, we are assured, made a voluntary choice that went unopposed by their families.

Nevertheless, this is shocking. Of course, that alone does not make it wrong. After all, interracial marriage was shocking to white Americans in the 1960s. But there are sound ethical and practical reasons why we should oppose child euthanasia.

Now, I’m a loud, proud advocate of the right to choose to end my life. I’ve told my loved ones that the day may come when I exercise that right. But I’m over 60 and have no intention of pulling the plug unless and until all that lies ahead is incurable suffering or the loss of my mind.

Does this make me a hypocrite? After all, the Belgian children who chose euthanasia faced similar fates. “Why wouldn’t you give children, who are incurably sick and who are unbearably suffering the same possibilities adults have?” asks Dr. Jan Bernheim, a leading advocate of the law that enabled these deaths.

Following the release of the report, Prof. Wim Distelmans, chairman of Belgium’s euthanasia committee, told the VOA, “There is no age for suffering. Fortunately, euthanasia among young people remains very exceptional. Even if it were only one, the law would have been very useful.”

Too often, the only responses are religious. Predictably, the Catholic Herald jumped onto the slippery slope: “One striking thing about modern Western societies is how quickly bioethical practices that would once have been shocking quickly become unremarkable. It happened with abortion, it happened with embryo selection, and now it is happening with euthanasia.”

This is more a jumble sale of pro-lifery than an argument. Nor do more detailed religious positions that draw on God’s will or “respect for life” have any validity beyond the cultural boundary of that particular religion’s adherents. Catholic doctrine does not respect Jewish doctrine on male circumcision, for example, and Islamic law takes no heed of the Pope’s pronouncements on capital punishment. And, of course, every religious argument about children suffering from fatal disease has a fatal flaw of its own: if God’s will is manifest in the malady, then to hasten death is to advance divine intent — either that, or the theologian is left trying to justify pointless suffering.

It is therefore doubly, if not triply, important for secular humanists to make evidence-based, universally applicable arguments about where to draw the lines. Here goes a first attempt.

  1. A child’s brain is not ready to make such a choice.
    Studies show that we all discount our future selves. It’s an evolved trait, reflecting that for most of human existence so uncertain was the future that a bird in hand was worth at least a dozen in the bush. But this discounting is vastly more problematic for a child, whose brain is rapidly changing and whose conception of future self can only be hazy at best.
  2. A child may feel guilt about being a burden to parents.
    We know from divorce studies that children often feel wildly disproportionate responsibility for their parents’ problems. A child with a fatal condition is bound to spark anxiety and grief in parents, and it is altogether likely that the child will feel guilt at being a disappointment and burden. Such guilt may needlessly propel a decision to choose death.
  3. Palliative care is good now and getting better.
    The suffering a child experiences can indeed be horrific, and is tough not only on the child but also on their loved ones. Nevertheless, the medical profession has made huge strides in relieving pain and suffering. Even with incurable diseases, it cannot be said that there is mere binary choice between suffering and death.
  4. What is incurable today may be curable tomorrow.
    If I develop a fatal cancer, it won’t be a welcome event but it won’t be a tragedy, either. I’ve lived a good, long life, capped off by writing this essay. A child born with cystic fibrosis (as was the case with one of those euthanized in Belgium) is at present labled incurable. But such children now have a life expectancy of more than 30 years, and it is more than merely possible, it is downright likely that in time a cure for CF and many other diseases will be found. A child deserves that chance.
  5. If we don’t defend this line, we undermine reproductive rights.
    Why do we uphold a woman’s right to choose to abort a pregnancy but reject her “right” to, say, drown her three-year-old child? It’s mainly because we recognize the difference between mere “life” and personhood. We owe moral responsibilities to entities capable of conscious suffering. This isn’t the place to lay out the arguments in full, but consider a few: the relgious mantra that “life begins at conception” is belied by the fact that no one pays moral respect to the placenta which grows from a fertilized egg. It’s “life,” to be sure, but it’s not a person. Similarly, the heartbeat in a fetus is not an indicator that there is a conscious person there. An anesthetized patient has a heartbeat but does not suffer when a surgeon applies the knife. While we lack certainty, we have strong reasons to infer that the beacon of integrated consciousness is not alight in a fetus and surely not in a zygote. So, if conscious suffering is indeed the threshold for moral duties, then we must recognize and vigorously defend it in children, or we abandon our principled stance in favor of a radical libertarianism.

In sum, then, while I may claim the right to end my aged life and might respect your right to do the same, we must be wary of making that slope so slippery that people — especially young people — go down it all too soon.