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Belgium moves toward legalizing euthanasia for terminally ill children

Doctors visit a patient at the intensive care unit of the Queen Fabiola Children's Hospital in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013. Two committees of the Belgian Senate say the country’s euthanasia law should also apply to children in certain cases.

Yves Logghe/AP

Belgium has moved a step further toward becoming the first country to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children with no age restrictions.

The senate voted 50-17 on Thursday to amend Belgium's 2002 euthanasia law. The amendment must be ratified by the lower house. Supporters would need to make it a priority item before the May legislative elections.

In the paper accompanying the proposal, the four senators who sponsored the amendment noted that health-care workers are already giving terminally ill children drugs to hasten or cause death to spare them unbearable pain.

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Patients can make enlightened choices when they are freed from the fear of a lengthy, undignified illness, the paper said. A minor's decision to request euthanasia has to be informed and lucid, and it would require an assessment by a child psychologist.

Unlike the Netherlands, which allows euthanasia for children as young as 12, Belgium would have no age restrictions.

"All the pediatrics experts we heard insisted on the extraordinary maturity that children acquire when they are confronted by a fatal illness," the legislative proposal said. "From their testimony, it emerged that it is better not to set an arbitrary age limit but to decide based on the answer to this question: Is the patient's request well informed, is the patient able to understand all its consequences."

One Canadian province, Quebec, is studying similar legislation.

Bill 52, An Act respecting end-of-life care, was tabled in June and is being debated in committee. The bill would give adult Quebec residents the right to have a lethal dose of sedatives if they have an incurable illness, suffer constant, unbearable pain, or are in "an advanced state of irreversible decline."

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