Published in Dominion Post 18 Feb 2014
There are hundreds of parents that belong to a unique club with a life-long membership that they never wanted to sign up to – the club of ‘parents that have lost children before their time’. We gained our ‘badge’ in 1999 after our first son was born without the left side of his heart (hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and it was the first time I had heard the term ‘not compatible with life’.
Medical staff were amazing and did all they could to give us hope, so it wasn’t without thought when we ‘brought him home to give him a life’ – regardless of how limited his days were with us. 15 years ago there were few medical options for severe hypoplastic left heart babies but now it amazes me when I hear of breakthroughs and babies surviving.
The road a parent walks when given a child’s prognosis is fraught with fragile emotions and it’s a fight to keep a balance between acceptance and reason. There are very few parents that won’t fight for every bit of help, support and hope for their child in need. With this in mind I was rather distressed to hear of the lawmakers in Belgium vote to extend their country’s euthanasia law to children under 18.
On the 13th February 2014 the Belgian government voted 86-44 to give a law to ‘empower’ children with terminal illnesses and who are in ‘great pain’ to request to end their life with their parent’s agreement along with a psychologist and psychiatrist signing any deal. Despite the Belgian lawmaker’s remarkable decision, Belgian paediatricians rightly opposed the law change.
Belgium passed their first euthanasia law for adults in 2002 – the ‘slippery slope’ proven. New Zealand must keep this in mind for the general election this year and gauge how every potential MP intends to vote on the issue of euthanasia. If an adult law can be passed then surely an amendment can follow to allow the same rights for a child. This should alarm and appal us.
Labour MP Maryann Street, who intends to reintroduce her bill to decriminalise euthanasia after the general election, recently said “Application for children with a terminal illness was a bridge too far in my view at this time. That might be something that may happen in the future, but not now”.
The euthanasia lobby always claims that it’s an issue of choice, but we are discussing children under 18 and NZ is full of ‘under the age of consent’ laws set up to rightly protect children who rely on adult care and nurture for the necessities of life. This is even enshrined in the UN Rights of the Child.
During the debate in Belgium, a Senator admitted that supporters of euthanasia discussed euthanasia for children with anorexia, mental illness and children ‘tired of life’.
Belgium has the same ‘safeguards’ in their law that MP Maryann Street is proposing. Nevertheless, a 2010 study found 32% of euthanasia cases were carried out without request or consent. Last month Dr Mark Cosyns, a leading euthanasia doctor, admitted to not reporting the many euthanasia deaths he had carried out.
Belgium is unable to control or prevent the abuse of the existing law, and now they have expanded it to impact children.
When a family is faced with a terminally ill child, they each have a unique and different experience, so no blanket law should wash over this issue. Some families ‘respond’ better than others as they walk through such an unreasonable time, and to have access to barbaric laws even with the guidance of a psychologist or psychiatrist is explosive. Some parents may decide “to end their child’s suffering” but underestimate the after effects – the guilt and complications to the grief process long after their child has died.
Suffering doesn’t belong in a nice neat little box with a clean end. Parents have more chance of peace of mind, post-death of a child, by walking through all the palliative care options and knowing they did all they could.
In our experience 15 years ago, we had the utmost care and professional services from our NZ medical system. We had specialists in three different locations link via technical communications to discuss our case. It was decided not to fly to Auckland due to risk and there was sadly, nothing that could be done. My husband and I are strong, so to tell us ‘nothing could be done’ was not accepted lightly but with immense sadness and raw emotion. We were fortunate to have a rural town show untold measures of support, along with a team of local specialists that resulted in an amazing community rallying – such a healthy element to a town. We felt like we weren’t going through this alone and it helped with the grief process afterwards. Our son lived just seven days and the time we had at home was so valuable.
Palliative care provides new and powerful medications for many ailments to ensure health-challenged children are comfortable with minimum pain.
Those that may respond with “why would you let your child suffer?” clearly underestimate and misunderstand suffering. Suffering in life doesn’t have nice, neat answers so a law like that of Belgium blindsides a healthy community rallying to foster support for loved ones.
Civilised and compassionate countries like New Zealand should nurture a ‘culture of life’.
Sue Reid is a mother, social commentator, and writer for Family First NZ