We don’t allow children to drive, vote or drink alcohol before certain legal ages, not because we want to arbitrarily restrict the actions of young people, but because it has long been accepted that there are developmental considerations to our ability to handle certain responsibilities.
Yes, much of the human brain is fully developed by the time we reach the age of 12. Certainly, the “feeling brain,” the part responsible for emotions, urges and impulses is not only fully functional by that age, but quite dominant.
But the so-called executive control centre of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, doesn’t fully mature until we are in our early twenties. This is the part of the brain that understands and evaluates consequences, and moderates emotions and impulses.
My son will be 12 in a few months. He is incredibly bright, funny and insightful, and, in certain ways, more mature than many others his age. He understands and looks at the world around him in a way that prompted his Grade Five teacher to describe him as a 40-year old in an 11-year old body. I suppose that could qualify him as a “mature minor?”
But he can also, like any child or teenager, be utterly ruled by his emotions at times – whether good or bad. He can be impulsive or lack judgment. He sometimes makes choices without fully considering the consequences. And this is all perfectly, developmentally normal.
And so our laws say that until he is less moderated by things like emotion and impulse, until he is capable of greater responsibility and appreciation of consequence, he can’t drive a car. He can’t buy cigarettes or consume alcohol. And he can’t vote (as much as he would like to).
What decision is of greater consequence than the decision to end one’s life?
The Provincial-Territorial Expert Advisory Group on Physician-Assisted Dying has released its’ recommendations. Many of these recommendations are very troubling, as they go far beyond what the Court prescribed in its ruling in the Carter case, and far beyond what has been recommended by the Canadian Medical Association.
Particularly troubling is the recommendation that there be no “arbitrary” age limits set on physician-assisted death.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that physician-assisted death should be allowed for a “competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”
The Advisory Group disagrees, recommending that “access to physician-assisted dying should not be impeded by the imposition of arbitrary age limits.” They suggest the federal government “make it clear in its changes to the Criminal Code that eligibility for physician-assisted dying is to be based on competence rather than age.” As reported in the National Post, at least one of the Advisory Group’s members has suggested that a patient as young as 12 could be deemed competent.
When taken together with their recommendation for how the terms “grievous and irremediable medical condition” be handled, the picture becomes even more alarming.
The Advisory Group suggests that “grievous and irremediable medical condition” should be defined as a very severe or serious illness, disease or disability that cannot be alleviated by any means acceptable to the patient.
But what if that patient is a 12-year old child with severe anxiety, depression or a disability that cannot be alleviated by any means acceptable to them, at this moment in time? Given what we know about child development, can we really consider age restrictions on requesting assistance in dying to be arbitrary?
Just a few months ago, I participated in a press conference introducing an interfaith Declaration on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. During the question and answer period, the prospect of child euthanasia was raised, and the presenting organizations were accused of fear mongering.
Legal age restrictions are not arbitrary. Things like age limits are set in a free and democratic society through institutions like Parliament in order to protect individuals, both from the actions of others and sometimes from their own. Our laws have always affirmed that children are among our most vulnerable, and most in need of protection.
If our nation proceeds down the road of decriminalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, let’s hope the federal government will ensure the greatest protection possible for all who may be vulnerable.
Julia Beazley of Ottawa is a policy analyst at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Find more on this issue at theEFC.ca/ResourcesOnEuthanasia.