Belgium achieved a definitive moment in the changing understanding of suicide when it legalised euthanasia with a vote of 86-44 in parliament last month. Euthanasia in Belgium, which has been legal for the past 12 years, has now been extended to include children, advocating ‘the right to die’ for all ages.
This radical debate over euthanasia split many politicians, paediatricians and other professionals in Belgium. Opposition was led by the Catholic Church, with Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard arguing that children are not expected to make important decisions on economic or emotional issues, so why ‘the right to die’? In spite of this, opinion polls have suggested broad support for the changes in Belgium, which is a majority Catholic country.
The conditions of the law show that to proceed with a case of euthanasia, each proposal has to be agreed by a treating physician and a second opinion. Children will also have to be interviewed by a paediatric psychiatrist or psychologist who must determine that the child processes ‘the capacity of discernment’. The importance of consent is crucial here; some believe a child is not able to give discernment, leaving it as a largely subjective assessment, especially as there are no age limits set in the new law. It is also unclear what happens if two parents of a child disagree. However, supporters of the legislation argue that in practice the law will affect an extremely small number of children, who would mostly be in their teens.
The Netherlands is another country which allows euthanasia for children, with the conditions that the child is over the age of 12 and has parental consent. Euthanasia itself is only legal in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, not to be confused with assisted suicide which is legal in 6 other countries. Efforts to change government policies on euthanasia in 20th century Western countries have met limited success. But will Belgium’s recent law encourage new decisions? The UK parliament is now preparing to examine a bill on assisted suicide in the next four months, suggesting new possibilities already.
But what makes a crime a crime? And would euthanasia be viewed differently if it was legal worldwide? Legal discourse is central in underlining the idea of ‘sin’ and stigma attached to all sorts of issues.
The ‘right to love’ is another human rights issue which has been fought over worldwide. Interracial marriage only became legal in parts of the USA after the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that deemed anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional after the campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Before this, anti-miscegenation laws played a large role in defining racial identity and enforcing racial hierarchy in the USA.
Additionally, the gay rights movement is now making advances in the 21st century. The laws against sodomy in England made slow changes through the centuries; its punishment gradually changed from death to imprisonment and then hard labour. Ignorance about homosexuality led some to believe that sodomy was an act of an older man seducing an innocent child. Homosexual activity has only been legal in England and Wales since 1967. However, although this is now history for the UK, LGBT rights remain non-existent in many countries worldwide today.
Change does not only happen in one direction. Although in the UK homosexual rights generally trend towards liberalism, the Ugandan president recently signed a law that imposes a 14 year prison sentence for homosexual acts. In Malaysia, Mr Anwar, who was leader of the opposition movement, has been charged with sodomy and corruption and given a 6 year jail term for abuse of power. Russia passed a law imposing heavy fines against ‘gay propaganda’ or providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of 18. President Putin claimed ‘we have a ban on promoting homosexuality and paedophilia among minors’, striking resonance with the 19th century British laws against sodomy by linking it to the corruption of the young.
‘The right to love’ shows how the definition of crime changes through time due to differing social attitudes and an increased public understanding of issues. The fight for a pro-choice attitude to love, and the shift in what is seen as acceptable, echoes the changes made in pro-choice attitudes to life and death. The debates over abortion in the USA also represent the stigma attached to ending a life ‘unnaturally’, hindering the progress of rights to abortion. Human and civil rights activists fight for quality of life across a broad range of issues, where, in some cases, removing the crime also removes the idea of ‘sin’ and stigma attached to these life choices.