Emily Graves spoke with Dr Peter Saunders about Belgium, the Netherlands and England

Dr Peter Saunders
Dr Peter Saunders

In Europe there are four countries who have legalised either euthanasia, assisted suicide, or both; the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland. Euthanasia is when a doctor intentionally ends the life of a patient and assisted suicide is where the doctor prescribes lethal drugs for the patient to take under their own steam.

In Belgium there's been a 5,000% increase in the number of annual euthanasia cases recorded since the first year in 2002 and the Belgium Federal Parliament are now attempting to widen the boundaries to include gravely ill children.

With two bills coming later this year in the UK for assisted suicide; one in the House of Lords and another one in Scotland, Emily Graves spoke with Dr Peter Saunders from Christian Medical Fellowship and Care Not Killing to find out more and to hear his perspective on the impact these issues have on the most vulnerable and on the national conscience.

Emily: What is euthanasia and how was it first legalised in other countries and Europe?

Peter: Euthanasia is when a doctor intentionally ends the life of a patient. It is usually with a lethal injection and for compassionate reasons because their life is felt either by the patient or by someone else to be no longer worth living. It can be voluntary where they ask for it, or it can be involuntary where the doctor simply decides.

In Europe there are four countries at the moment who have legalised either euthanasia or assisted suicide or both. The Netherlands and Luxembourg have both euthanasia and assisted suicide; with Belgium it's euthanasia only and with Switzerland its assisted suicide only. There is pressure to change the law in other countries. There's a bill in England, one in Scotland, one in France and one in Germany that all are expected to be considered this year.

Emily: Can you tell us a little bit more about what is going on in Belgium at this time?

Peter: Part of the difficulty we have is that it's not been very well reported, or it's been reported in Flemish or French and not been well translated into English media by broadcast or print. What we can gather is that in Belgium euthanasia was legalised back in 2002, but it's only for mentally competent adults, people over 18. What they're wanting to do now is to extend it to children younger than 18 and also to make it available to adults who aren't mentally competent; some of them with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. It's a huge move, which is going to open the boundaries much more.

Emily: When it's specifically speaking about a child, what age range is it referring to? When is the cut off point?

Peter: They're saying that the child has to be old enough to make a decision. Presumably it applies to older children who are younger than 18. Although it raises a question if a child is not old enough to pick up a drink, to vote, to marry, to drive a car, then why are they giving permission for them to make the most important decision of all about whether they can have their lives ended. It raises real questions; how are they going to determine whether a child's suffering is adequate enough? Is that just going to be subjectively defined depending on the opinion of the doctor? How are they going to work out that they are making a decision free from coercion; a mature decision that's well thought through? It raises all sorts of questions about loopholes and extension.

Emily: Will a child have a full understanding of what this could mean for them?

Peter: We are talking about teenagers aren't we and we all know how often teenagers make quite impulsive decisions that are not well thought through. These are about life style issues; do I have sex, do I drink, do I smoke, do I drive a car in this way and so on and teenagers are notoriously not good because their brains are not yet developed at this stage to properly think through what the consequences of decisions are. Yes, I think it's very dangerous indeed.

Emily: If this is something that does go through do you think it will encourage other countries to go the same way?

Peter: I would hope that other countries seeing this would be horrified and definitely don't want to go down the Belgium route. That's what I hope the reaction will be.