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Belgium is expected to become the first country in the world to allow a terminally ill person of any age to choose euthanasia. That would even extend the right to children.

From Brussels, Teri Schultz reports the idea has stirred a divisive and emotional debate.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Neonatal pediatrician Olivia Williams has spent her career trying to save the lives of desperately ill children in one of Brussels' best critical-care wards.

DR. OLIVIA WILLIAMS: I've seen children ask to die, definitely. Children do. We're talking children with a terminal cancer, suffering; children who refuse another operation that might give them another three months. They ask to die. They don't want it. Not all of them, but yeah, definitely. Definitely.

SCHULTZ: Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002 for those 18 and over. But a bill before Parliament would lift age restrictions, and allow terminally ill children to ask to be euthanized if they're in unbearable pain and treatment options are exhausted, and if their parents and medical team agree. Williams says kids should have the same options as adults in ending their pain and suffering.

WILLIAMS: If you go to a geriatric ward, patients with the same quality of life and the same life expectancy as a 6-year-old with bone cancer, you wouldn't let them suffer. You would let them go. And they'd ask you to go, you would let them go.

SCHULTZ: But Flemish Christian Democratic Sen. Els Van Hoof strongly opposes the legislation. She insists children can't possibly understand the implications of such a request.

SEN. ELS VAN HOOF: They can't drink before they're 16. They can't smoke before they're 16. They can't vote before they're 18. They can't marry before they're 18. They can't be punished because they don't have the competence. But when they talk about life and death, they can decide - it's not coherent.

SCHULTZ: Van Hoof worries overstretched parents will be the ones asking for their children's euthanasia, or manipulating vulnerable kids into asking for it. Beyond that, she believes the law is simply unnecessary since Belgium already allows what's called palliative sedation, increasing pain medication to the point of eventual death when a patient's end-of-life suffering can no longer be alleviated in a conscious state.

Religious leaders also oppose the measure. A group from several faiths issued a joint statement, saying the law risks trivializing the sanctity of life and sets a dangerous path for society. Catholic bishops also condemned the measure, which decades ago, would have carried a lot of weight in this heavily Catholic country.

RIK TORFS: The Church can have the opinion that life is a gift from God and that we don't have the right to throw it away.

SCHULTZ: Religious commentator Rik Torfs, a former parliamentarian and current rector of Catholic University in Leuven, says huge public support for the bill is another mark of an erosion of faith.

TORFS: In the past, people were very Catholic and they thought, OK, we are not living nice days over here but after our death, everything will be beautiful. Now they are saying, OK, nothing will happen afterwards, so let's try to construct a happy end, which means a death controlled by ourselves.

SCHULTZ: Parliament is set to vote on the bill this week. It's expected to pass easily and that then, an estimated 10 to 15 gravely ill Belgian children per year will use their new right to ask to die.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz.

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