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Health

German criticism as Belgium moves closer to euthanasia for minors

A German patients' organization has criticized the Belgian Senate's provisional approval of child euthanasia in exceptional circumstances. The two neighbors are miles apart when it comes to end-of-life medical ethics.

A major German foundation for the seriously ill on Friday sharply criticized the Belgian Senate's clear approval of a draft law that would allow euthanasia to be practiced on minors in exceptional circumstances and with parental consent.

The proposed law was "neither a laudable pioneering move nor an act of humanity, but rather a sad declaration of bankruptcy," according to the chairman of the German foundation for the protection of patients, Eugen Brysch.

"There cannot be an objective catalog of ills, where doctors can just tick the appropriate box when deciding over life and death," Brysch said, calling euthaniasia "the manifestation of a failing political system, which leaves people on their own and then calls this self-determination."

Founded by the Catholic Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 1995, the German foundation for the protection of patients (Deutsche Stiftung Patientenschutz) now operates as an independent body funded by some 55,000 members, donations and interest on its estate.

Lower house vote by May?

The bill, supported by the country's largest parties and around three-quarters of Belgians, according to surveys, passed the Senate by 50 votes to 17 late on Thursday but must still go through the lower house.

"We want this law to be passed before the dissolution of parliament," Socialist politician Karine Lalieux said after the vote. It is thought that the process could reach the lower house by May of next year.

"The time of those who suffer is not the same as the time of those who legislate," one of the bill's co-authors, Philippe Mahoux, said. "It is therefore time to legislate."

Belgium's fourth-largest party, the Flemish Christian Democrats, are the proposal's most powerful domestic opponents, along with major religious organizations.

In a joint statement from Christian, Jewish and Muslim bodies, Belgian theologians expressed "great concern at the banalization" of euthanasia.

Belgium introduced the possibility of euthanasia for people aged 18 or over in 2002. Under the current rules, an adult can qualify only if a doctor attests both that their illness is incurable and their suffering unbearable. The new proposal for terminally ill minors would also require parental consent. It also stipulates, without naming a specific age, that the patient must be conscious of their situation and understand the meaning of a request for euthanasia.

German contrast

Unlike neighbors Belgium and the Netherlands, which already has a similar law in effect for patients over the age of 12, Germany currently does not allow euthanasia in any circumstances. Many of the country's hospitals have ties to various churches, as do Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Outgoing Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger of the Free Democrats - junior coalition partners with Merkel until their election disaster in September - had sought legislation that would prevent doctors from prosecution in certain situations.

Reports during negotiations for the current coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats suggested that Merkel's conservatives were seeking a clause rejecting the possibility of legalizing euthanasia. However, no mention of the topic appeared in the final bipartisan coalition agreement.

msh/ph (AFP, dpa, KNA)