Belgium vote to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill children

Richard Hawkes blogs about the news that Belgium has voted to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill children.

Many British disabled people will be looking nervously over at Belgium. They may still only be one of a handful of countries to legalise euthanasia. But the news raises many of the same issues that we’re grappling with in the UK when it comes to assisted suicide.

Right now there are loud, well-organised and influential, calls to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill adults. But there are lots of ordinary people, not least disabled people, who are really worried at the way we seem to be edging towards a change in the law.

There are important parallels with Belgium. What Belgium’s experience shows – as with the other handful of countries, which have legalised euthanasia or assisted suicide – is that where the law is changed, euthanasia and assisted suicide go up.

In Belgium, there has been a sharp increase in the number of euthanasia deaths, which has increased from 235 in 2003, the first year the law came in, to 1133 euthanasia deaths in 2011, the last year for which official data is available.

Belgium’s decision also shows that when you implement such laws they don’t always stay within their original parameters. And certainly the assisted dying proposals from Lord Falconer leave the door open to broaden it from people with not terminally ill to people with disabilities.

Also, once again doctors are vocal in their opposition. At home, the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, Surgeons and Physicians are all opposed to legalising physician-assisted suicide.

Over here disabled people are asking why our response to people wanting to die is to talk them out of it, but in the case of sick and disabled people it’s how can we help you die.  The law on assisted suicide works. It also sends a really powerful message countering the view that if you’re disabled it’s not worth being alive, and that you’re a burden. It stops that view turning into something much worse.

We can’t change a law that works on the basis of powerful, but exceptional cases. Politicians will debate assisted suicide again later this year. They need to guard against community bullying of our most vulnerable members.