Age limits in health care for terminally ill patients

Date: 24th February 2014
Category: Disability, Basic Health and Welfare

As Belgium amended its euthanasia law in February 2014 by lifting all age restrictions on the right to die, the debate on the legitimacy of imposing age limits for euthanasia is also taking place in Japan and Canada.

Supporters of Belgium's law say the amendment responds to the reality of terminally ill children who are suffering unbearable pain, as "some children need to have an answer to their demands because they are suffering so much. They are asking for this ..." said Professor Dominique Biarent, who heads the intensive care unit at the Queen Fabiola Children's University Hospital in Brussels.

One of the primary aspects of Belgium's euthanasia law is that maturity - rather than age - is given consideration in evaluating if a patient has the capacity and discernment to make the decision to die. Supporters of the bill affirm that terminally ill children mature quicker and display greater lucidity on life and death than many healthy adults. Nonetheless, doctors assure that euthanasia is always seen as a last resort.

Meanwhile in Quebec, Canada, the province's national assembly is expected to soon vote on a proposed law to legalise euthanasia. The bill only applies to terminally ill patients aged 18 and over who are suffering unbearable pain. But the Quebec Commission on Human Rights and Youth Rights says that excluding under-18s from the bill is a potential infringement of their human rights. These include their freedom of conscience, right to physical integrity, and the right to the safeguarding of their dignity.

In Japan, law makers are expected to submit a draft bill on death with dignity, or songenshi, to the parliament this spring, according to The Japan Times. The bill seeks to exempt doctors from criminal and civil prosecution for halting life-prolonging treatment if a terminally ill patient who has no hope of recovering has given written consent to do this. This law, however, is somewhat less inclusive of children's rights, as it proposes setting a minimum age of 15 to request songenshi.