Since 2002, the Belgium government has aimed to provide “palliative care for all” as a part of its healthcare services. On the surface, this sounds like a laudable goal and one that should be encouraged. But, as a new report from the European Institute of Bioethics reveals, the Belgian government’s understanding of euthanasia as a form of palliative care undermines the very purpose of this goal.

In 2002—the same year that Belgium committed to expanding its palliative care services—the World Health Organization (WHO) stated, “Palliative care provides relief from pain and other distressing symptoms; affirms life and regards dying as a normal process; intends neither to hasten or postpone death.”

By its very definition then, palliative care, in its affirmation of life, must reject the idea that doctors or healthcare providers can ever assist in the taking of one’s own life—regardless of the circumstances. Yet despite this, Belgium has allowed the practice since 2002—first with restrictions that gradually loosened over time, up until 2012, when the parliament approved euthanasia for children. It’s effectively a free for all now.

Promoting both euthanasia and palliative care is incompatible. Instead of working toward pain management, euthanasia promotes killing instead of care and comfort. Earlier this year, Dr. Ira Byock, one of the United States’ leading palliative care physicians, argued in Politico that true progressives should never promote assisted suicide or euthanasia as a proper political response to those who are ill and suffering.

As Byock noted:

It is said that the real worth of any society can be found in the way it cares for its most vulnerable members. In Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana, where doctors can legally write lethal prescriptions, the systemic deficiencies that cause preventable distress among dying people persist. A healthy society doesn’t force its members to choose between suffering and suicide. I grew up believing that every person’s life has value and that America does not settle for less than the best. Suicide is not the answer. We are a far more generous people than that. Aged, ill and dying Americans need progressives to reclaim our commitment to bold, constructive political and social action.

As many places in the United States and other countries around the world consider legalizing assisted suicide, they should strongly consider what type of laws and programs they want to promote. The choice is stark: encourage efforts intended to provide the best possible care through the end of the dying process. Or simply advocate for killing. As the example of Belgium reminds us, once that road is embarked upon, it’s hard to turn back.

Image by instantvantage via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Christopher White, Ramsey Institute Project Director