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Attitudes and practices of physicians regarding physician-assisted dying in minors

Abstract

Objective To investigate attitudes towards physician-assisted death in minors among all physicians involved in the treatment of children dying in Flanders, Belgium over an 18-month period, and how these are related to actual medical end-of-life practices.

Design Anonymous population-based postmortem physician survey.

Setting Flanders, Belgium.

Participants Physicians signing death certificates of all patients aged 1–17 years who died between June 2007 and November 2008.

Main outcome measures Attitudes towards physician-assisted death in minors and actual end-of-life practices in the deaths concerned.

Results 124 physicians for 70.5% of eligible cases (N=149) responded. 69% favour an extension of the Belgian law on euthanasia to include minors, 26.6% think this should be done by establishing clear age limits and 61% think parental consent is required before taking life-shortening decisions. Cluster analysis yielded a cluster (67.7% of physicians) accepting of, and a cluster (32.2% of physicians) reluctant towards physician-assisted death in minors. Controlling for physician specialty and patient characteristics, acceptant physicians were more likely to engage in practices with the intention of shortening a patient's life than were reluctant physicians.

Conclusion A majority of surveyed Flemish physicians appear to accept physician-assisted dying in children under certain circumstances and favour an amendment to the euthanasia law to include minors. The approach favoured is one of assessing decision-making capacity rather than setting arbitrary age limits. These stances, and their connection with actual end-of-life practices, may encourage policy-makers to develop guidelines for medical end-of-life practices in minors that address specific challenges arising in this patient group.

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