The Dutch government announced plans last week to allow doctors to end the lives of terminally ill children who are under 13 years old, a decision that is bound to inflame the debate over physician-assisted death.
The Netherlands already allows doctors to facilitate the deaths of people who are over 12 or less than 1 year old as long as parents have given their consent.
In a letter to parliament, the Dutch health minister, Hugo de Jonge, proposed expanding the law to include children between the ages of 1 and 12 who are dying and suffering.
“In a small number of cases, palliative care isn’t sufficient,” de Jonge wrote. “Because of that, some children suffer unnecessarily without any hope of improvement.”
He estimated that the measure would affect about five to 10 children every year.
Doctors in the Netherlands have expressed concern that they could be held criminally liable if they were to help end the lives of “incurably ill” children between 1 and 12, because the law had no provision for children that age who are expected to die imminently.
Under the current law, a doctor may end the life of a child younger than 1, with the consent of the child’s parents, if the child is experiencing “intolerable and hopeless suffering,” de Jonge wrote.
He said the new regulation would provide more transparency for doctors.
Three other European countries — Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland — allow physician-assisted death, though the laws differ in each country. Belgium allows children to die with the help of a doctor, but in Luxembourg, the law is restricted to adults with an incurable medical condition.
Canada, parts of Australia and Colombia have also legalized physician-assisted death for adults in certain cases.
In the Netherlands, parliament does not need to vote on the new regulation because it will be folded into the already existing law, de Jonge said in the letter.