Critical day for children’s right to die

  • A vote on extending the law on euthanasia to children is on the Senate committee agenda today.
  • A majority of senators are expected to vote in favor.
  • But the decision may be reversed in plenary session.

The agenda is clear: a Senate committee will vote today on the proposal to extend the law on euthanasia to children. There appears to be a consensus on the amended draft put forward by Senator Elke Sleurs of the center–right N-VA. Even though some are unhappy with her amendments, it seems likely that, in the end, supporters of the proposal will carry the day.

1. Those in favor; those against

It is important to note that on ethical questions the principle of freedom of conscience prevails. There will therefore be a free vote, with senators voting according to their own convictions. The political parties are not supposed to issue any instructions. So it is not a matter of majority or minority parties. In fact, the government coalition is divided on the issue, with the CDH and CD&V (Christian Democrats) generally against. As a result there has been talk of an “alternative majority”, as socialist and liberal senators seem to be backing the consensus proposal put forward by N-VA Senator Elke Sleurs. In practice, if senators from the PS and SPA (socialists), MR (center-right Reformist Movement), Open VLD (liberal democrats) and N-VA vote in favor, they will carry the majority in committee. In addition, appearing on the Mise au Point TV program last Sunday, Zakia Khattabi, the leader of the Green group in the senate, announced that she would support the proposal, even though she had previously expressed some concerns about it. However, she is calling on her colleagues in the Chamber to bring forward a number of amendments.

2. The next steps

Even if the proposal is passed by the Senate committee today, it will be just the first stage in a long legislative journey. Following the vote in committee, the bill will go to a plenary session of the Senate. However, there are a number of other laws in the pipeline, including the state reform bill, and it is by no means clear that euthanasia will go to the head of the line. And it is possible that there will be a majority against the proposal in a plenary session. Taking the MR as an example, even if Jacques Brotchi and Christine Defraigne vote in favor today, several of their party colleagues disagree with their views and may either abstain or vote against. After passing the Senate, the law will have to go to the Chamber, where it may again be examined in committee, with the possibility of further amendments before the committee votes. Only after that will it finally go to a vote in a plenary session of the Chamber. It’s a long haul!

3. Chances of Success?

It is, therefore, not unreasonable to ask whether the bill has any real chance of becoming law before the end of the parliamentary session. This is not at all certain. If it fails, a new member of parliament would have to get the issue back onto the agenda and bring forward a new bill after the election. However, Pascal Delwit, a political analyst at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, considers that “It is still possible that a parliamentary majority will emerge, with a number of members of parliament believing that the bill should be supported, because of what it contains.” The timing is tight but not impossibly so, provided that it isn’t used by the bill’s opponents to delay its passage.

4. A political strategy?

Delwit also suggests that while the proposed law concerns a “fundamental” issue, “it has little electoral value.” Only a small number of people are directly affected by it, and members of parliament who support it are unlikely to win more votes in the next elections by doing so. On the contrary, voters in the most conservative wing of the CDH and CD&V are strongly opposed to euthanasia, making it a difficult issue for those parties. In Delwit’s view, only the N-VA seems to have a political strategy on this issue. “On the one hand, the N-VA has introduced tension into the governing coalition. On the other hand, it has, for the first time, broken away from the rules which have governed the behavior of the coalition partners.” By bringing forward a draft which both the socialists and the liberals support, the NV-A has effectively torn the governing coalition apart and created an alternative majority. And it has done so on an issue which was not covered in the coalition agreement. For Delwit, “When you break these rules, you open Pandora’s box.” If the rules have been broken once, couldn’t they be broken again in the future, on other issues?



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