In the footsteps of its Dutch neighbours, Belgium has become the world's second country to allow euthanasia. The decision comes a week after the death of terminally-ill euthanasia campaigner Diane Pretty.
The right to die - total care?
Belgium's landmark decision to legalise euthanasia is a move that has split the country. In Brussels, the Chamber of Representatives, passed the motion with 86 votes in favour and 51 against. There were 10 abstentions. Though controversial, the result was expected. The Senate had approved the paper last October.
The country's lower house of parliament had thrashed out the issues for two days before the vote, with political parties still divided. The Christian Democrats firmly opposed, while the motion was carried by the Socialist-Liberal-Green coaltion.
Flemish Green Party member Anne-Mie Descheemaeker told reporters that the law belonged to basic human rights.
"Everyone has the right to die in dignity. I’m sure that having the option of euthanasia actually gives people the courage to go on day after day," said Descheemaeker.
Half the right to die
The vote to pass Belgium‘s euthanasia law comes after more than a year of considerations and political wrangling. And the debate looks set to continue.
The new law is but a partial legalisation of euthanasia. It differs from Dutch legislation, which was approved this April, in that it applies only to patients older than 18. It sets out strict guidlines as to the circumstances in which a person who is terminally ill may be assisted in death – according to the specifics of their illness. And it does not give doctors the right to kill.
But many feel that the law is not strict enough. Filip Dewinter, right-wing party leader of Vlaams Blok, argues people who are not terminally ill will be able to commit euthanasia far easier than before. Other dissenters are worried that the law extends to people who have years to live despite an incurable illness. Some are concerned that people suffering from an incurable psychological illness fall under the law.
Greens politician Anne-Mie Descheemaeker says, however, that the law will increase transparency in the medical profession.
"At the moment it’s the doctor who decides without asking the person involved. No one really knows what’s happening right now," she said.
The Belgian law is expected to come into force before the summer parliamentary break. Taking their lead from the Netherlands, and now Belgium, France and Britain have yet to decide.
Can’t choose without a choice
The debate in Europe on the ethics of euthanasia was fueled in recent weeks by the case of Diane Pretty (photo). The terminally ill British woman had fought for the right to die in diginity.
The 43-year-old and her husband had taken their case as high as the European Court of Human Rights. But the judges in Strasbourg agreed with earlier verdicts of British courts and rejected her pleas.
Pretty suffered from a motor neurone disease and was paralysed from the neck down. She was unable to commit suicide herself. But if her husband had helped her die, he would have faced a long prison term.
Earlier this month, Diane Pretty's health deteriorated steadily. She was taken to a hospice, on May 3 after suffering breathing difficulties. But the doctors were unable to help her and her condition continued to deteriorate. In mid-May, she fell into a coma and never regained consciousness.
Last Sunday, family members announced Diane Pretty's death.