Belgian lawmakers will on Wednesday vote on whether to support a proposed new bill to give extremely sick children the right to euthanasia, a move certain to fan the divisive debate on the practice worldwide.
The new bill would make Belgium the first country to remove the age limit for the procedure - though it would insist parents have a role in their child's decision to die.
"We want to provide the freedom of choice, also to minors who are able to make up their own mind," said one of the bill's backers, Jean-Jacques De Gucht, from the Flemish liberals, who form part of the ruling coalition.
Tomorrow's senate panel will vote whether to support the bill allowing the killing of a young patient suffering from an extreme condition, and pass the legislation on to parliament.
The committee will not have the power to make the bill law. But the panel's backing would be an important move in that direction as the committee shares the same political makeup as the broader parliament.
Backers say the law would give a merciful way out for youngsters suffering from debilitating conditions, and legalize a practice that they say is already going on in secret.
"Imagine a cancer or leukemia patient, a child whom we have already treated for eight years and in which we reach a stage where we know there is nothing more that we can do to cure him," said Marc Cosyns, lecturer of medical ethics at Ghent University.
"MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH"
Opponents say it would open the door to infanticide and leave the ultimate decision in the hands of someone too young to make it. Euthanasia is outlawed altogether in most countries.
"Once the possibility for euthanasia exists for children, demand is likely to rise. It's clear among adults that it is difficult to keep euthanasia within limits once the taboo of killing has fallen," said oncologist Benoit Beuselinck, founder of euthanasiestop.be.
Some religious groups have also come out against the legislation.
Belgium's neighbor the Netherlands already lets terminally ill children seek euthanasia. But the age limit is 12, and anyone aged up to 16 has to get full parental consent.
Analysts said there was a good chance the bill would get backing from the senate's joint justice and social affairs panel, as it had already been proposed by members of the Flemish and Walloon arms of the coalitions liberal and socialist parties.
The third coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, has acknowledged there is a broad political consensus to extend euthanasia to minors, but is pushing for a minimum age limit of 15 and tighter rules on medical panels reviewing euthanasia requests.
"In matters of life and death it is no mistake to think a bit longer about the law we are creating," said senator Els Van Hoof, of the Flemish Christian Democrats.
The proposed law already says children choosing to die would have to be of "sound mind and judgment", effectively ruling out infants.
Dutch data suggest youngsters make up just a tiny fraction of people seeking euthanasia. Only five minors requested it between 2002 and 2013, only one of them under 16.
Belgium is already seen as one of the world's most liberal countries when it comes to euthanasia, and allows it for people who are not terminally ill.