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Belgium approves bill allowing minors to request euthanasia

The Belgian Senate committee [official website, in Dutch] on Wednesday voted in favor of passing a controversial bill that aims to extend the right to request euthanasia to children with terminal illnesses and adults with dementia. Although still not yet a law, the bill cleared the committee in a 13-4 vote, according to [AP report] Senate communications director Patrick Peremans. The Belgian parliament adopted legislation [text, PDF] that authorized the practice of euthanasia [BBC backgrounder] in 2002 but limited the right to request it to patients who were either of the age of majority or emancipated minors. The law requires that the patient be legally competent and conscious at the time of the request, that the request is voluntary and that the patient is in a "medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical pain or mental suffering that can not be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident." The act defines the procedure as "intentionally terminating life by someone other than the person concerned, at the latter's request." If the new bill is successfully passed, Belgium will be the first country [Reuters report] to eliminate the requirement of an age limit. While many who support the bill have hailed it as a merciful option for minors suffering with no hope of recovery, some opponents have expressed fears that it may lead to infanticide. Since the legalization of euthanasia, only five minors have requested it with only one of them under the age of 16.

The Netherlands [BBC report] legalized euthanasia in 2001 and Belgium [JURIST report] followed suit in 2002. Statistics published in 2006 showed that reported euthanasia cases in Belgium in 2005 were nearly double what they were when the legislation was passed, with nearly 400 documented instances. In February 2007, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland [official website, in German] ruled that people with serious mental illnesses may be permitted to commit physician-assisted suicide [JURIST report] under certain conditions. A proposed bill that would legalize assisted suicide in the United Kingdom was set aside by the House of Lords in May 2007 following opposition by physician groups [JURIST reports]. In January 2006, the US Supreme Court upheld Oregon's Death with Dignity Act [JURIST report]. Oregon is the only US state that allows physician-assisted suicide. Euthanasia remains illegal in Italy, France [JURIST reports] and Spain.

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