Belgium’s king has signed into law a controversial bill that will allow for chronically ill children to be euthanized, local media reports. The bill, while widely opposed by religious groups, has broadly support among the public.
Belgian newspapers reported that King Philippe signed the bill into law Sunday, putting to rest weeks of speculation on whether he would approve the law amid strong opposition from Catholic organizations throughout Europe.
The legislation, which grants children the right to request euthanasia if they are “in great pain” and there is no available treatment, makes Belgium the first country in the world where the age of the child is not taken into consideration. Similar legislation exists in the Netherlands, though only for children over the age of 12. In both countries, children are required to receive the consent of parents, doctors and psychiatrists.
The Belgian Catholic Church opposes the law, earlier describing it as a “step too far.” European Catholics also petitioned the king to veto the bill.
In late February, a Spanish conservative lobby delivered more than 200,000 signatures to King Philippe in Brussels, demanding that he not sign the bill. One of the petition’s organizers, Alvaro Zulueta, says more than 5,000 of the signatures came from concerned Belgians, although Italians made up the largest number of respondents, AFP reported.
Although King Philippe’s signature was technically necessary for the bill to pass, it would have been highly unusual for the constitutional monarch not to approve the legislation.
The bill passed the Belgium House of Representatives 86-44 with 12 abstentions February 13, following approval by the Senate last December. Some lawmakers strongly contested the bill, which was proposed by the ruling Socialist Party. The bill was opposed by the Christian Democratic and Flemish parties, which earlier threatened to take the proposal before the European Court of Human Rights.
Belgium became the second country in the world after its neighbor, The Netherlands, to legalize euthanasia following the 2002 Belgium Act on Euthanasia.
Since that time, the number of reported cases of euthanasia in Belgium has reached 1,400 per year.
Critics say it has fundamentally changed Belgium society. In one case in December 2012, Doctors announced that they had euthanized 45-year-old deaf identical twins who were going blind and believed they had nothing left to live for.
Critics said the brothers were not terminally ill nor suffering physical pain, and it took them two years before they found doctors who would perform the procedure. According to Bioedge, a doctor at their local hospital said, “I do not think this was what the legislation meant by 'unbearable suffering.’"
In another case, a 44-year-old woman with chronic anorexia nervosa was euthanized. A 64-year-old woman suffering from chronic depression was also euthanized without informing her relatives. The doctors involved claimed the cases were exceptional, saying all legal obligations were met.
Despite more extreme cases which have gathered worldwide media attention, a recent public survey earlier found that 75 percent of Belgians supported the child euthanasia measure.