Belgium's Roman Catholic bishops have protested against a bill on euthanasia in the Belgian senate which, if passed, would make Belgium the second country after The Netherlands to legalize mercy killings and assisted suicides.

Supporters say that the measure could be ready for adoption by the end of this year.

In a statement issued on July 3, the bishops rejected the creation of a legal framework for euthanasia as "morally unacceptable." They pointed out that the drafted law goes beyond legalizing euthanasia for patients who, because of unbearable physical suffering, "find themselves in a medically hopeless situation." Those with unbearable mental suffering, including patients who are not terminally ill, would also be able to ask for assistance in ending their life.

The bishops feared that "the legal option of euthanasia will create social pressure on the weakest [members of society], which will lead them to more readily see themselves as 'no longer wanted'." This would cause them to ask for their life to be ended, "so as not to be a burden on others." The bishops said they had received "signals from the field" which confirmed this fear.

The bishops also charged that the bill would "severely strain the necessary relations of trust" between patients and medical personnel. "Those who advocate euthanasia in the name of individual freedom would have to answer for the negative impact that this would have on the medical profession," they said.

By opposing euthanasia, the bishops said they wanted to "prevent the creation of a chilly and pragmatic society, which lacks tenderness and, in the case of human suffering near the end of life, offers no way out other than to kill the person who suffers." They called for more resources for palliative care—treatment to lessen pain in the case of incurable disease.

The ruling six-party coalition of French and Flemish Socialists, Liberals and Greens has moved quickly to legalize euthanasia since coming to power in June 1999. The opposition Christian Democrats, who lost in the last elections for the first time in more than 40 years, had blocked any previous attempts.

Belgian public support for assisted suicides is strong. An estimated 72 percent of Belgians said they supported some sort of death on demand, according to a poll published in March by the daily La Libre Belgique newspaper. (In France, in comparison, the figure was 84 percent, CNN reported in April.)

In a study published last November in the British medical journal The Lancet, researchers from universities in Belgium asked physicians who had signed death certificates to tell them, anonymously, if the deaths had been assisted. They found that administration of lethal drugs together with the withholding of life-saving drugs accounted for some 10 percent of deaths in Belgium.

Article continues below

Critics charge that there are too few resources for palliative care in Belgium. After touring a Brussels hospice last year, anti-euthanasia activist Brian Johnston observed: "There are only two facilities and a total of 180 beds dedicated to palliative care in the entire country. The positive answers—providing physical and emotional care for those near the end of life—are being overlooked in a mad rush to legalize euthanasia." Johnston, an official of the US lobby group National Right to Life, was on a visit to the country at the invitation of Belgian senators.

Last April—in a move widely condemned by Christian groups at home and abroad—The Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia for patients suffering from incurable diseases.

Related Elsewhere has a storehouse of statements, facts, and articles (medical | legal | personal).

International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide lays out many specifics of the debate. presents both sides of the Euthanasia issue.

In April, the Dutch parliament approved euthanasia with a bill legalizing mercy killings and doctor-assisted suicide. The New York Times and the BBC covered this decision closely.

Before the Dutch law, The Guardian posed the question, "Will other countries follow their lead?"

For other recent news and opinion pieces on euthanasia, see or Yahoo's full coverage area.

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity argues that "requests for euthanasia signify a failure to recognize that life is a gift from God"

Books and Culture took on the euphemisms that surround euthanasia in "The Subjunctive that Killed Hugh Finn | Our language about what a patient 'would' want turns sympathy into empathy, pity into murder."

Previous Christianity Today coverage of euthanasia includes:

Dutch Churches in Last-Ditch Effort to Stop Euthanasia Law | More than 50 religious and social organizations send petition to The Hague, hoping to defeat final vote. (April. 21, 2001)

Death by Default | Few seem to have noticed the euthanasia movement's latest gains. A Christianity Today Editorial. (Feb. 15, 2001)

Severe Mercy in Oregon | How two dying patients dealt with a new right: When to die. (June 14, 1999)

Hospice Care Hijacked? | A bottom-line, cost-efficient mentality obscures the movement's original Christian vision. (March 2, 1998)

What Really Died in Oregon | The state's voter-approved suicide law represents more than an extreme belief in personal autonomy. (January 12, 1998)

'Right to Die' Debate Returns to States | (August 11, 1997)

Deadly Compassion | Some support physician-assisted suicide out of fear of a lonely, pain-filled death. Here are four professionals who are making the dying a part of the church's ministry. (June 16, 1997)