The Belgian pediatric euthanasia law seeks to respect the moral status of children as agents who possess the nascent capacity for self-determination. Specifically, the law requires the medical team to demonstrate a patient has the “capacity for discernment,” indicating that he or she understands the consequences of a choice for euthanasia.
What the law does not consider, however, is that adults choose euthanasia for reasons that go beyond pain. For adults, the decision to end their life can be based upon the fear of a loss of control, not wanting to burden others, or the desire not to spend their final days of life fully sedated. These desires might be supported by the experience they have had witnessing a loved one express a loss of dignity or because they understand what terminal sedation is and wish to refuse it. Children, however, lack the intellectual capacity to develop a sophisticated preference against palliative interventions of last resort. Instead, in the case of the new Belgian law, children seem to be asked to choose between unbearable suffering on the one hand and death on the other.
This possibility causes the Belgian euthanasia law to fall short of the standard required for valid assent. The criterion related to the “capacity for discernment” runs the risk of ignoring the fact that children and adolescents lack the experiential knowledge and sense of self that adults often invoke—rightly or wrongly—at the end of their lives.
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