"Disclosure Rules Leave Some Relatives in the Dark" was published by Naftali Bendavid in The Wall Street Journal on June 14, 2013.
BRUSSELS — Tom Mortier received a message at work last year saying his 64-year-old mother had died the day before, and he quickly found out she'd been euthanized.
Mr. Mortier, who teaches college chemistry, was shocked. Though estranged from his mother, he knew she was depressed and had spoken of euthanasia. But he had no idea this could happen, he said, especially since she wasn't physically ill, and her children weren't informed. "This is irreversible," he said. "One day my mother is dead."
In the past 10 years since the country legalized the practice, more than 5,530 Belgians have signed up for euthanasia, according to government records. By most accounts, those who carry it out are surrounded by supportive family and friends. But however they occur, most cases have a searing effect on more than just the patient.
Five years ago, in a more typical case, a well-known Belgian writer Hugo Claus decided to be euthanized at age 78 while suffering from Alzheimer's. "He wanted to remain master of his life and also of his death," said his wife, Veerle Claus.
As the time approached, Mr. Claus's best friend came to stay with the couple to spend some final days visiting restaurants, talking, and laughing. Then on March 19, 2008, they took a cab to the hospital. "You leave in the morning with your husband and you talk normally," she recalled. "You know it's a one-way drive."
The Clauses drank champagne in the hospital room and shared a last forbidden cigarette. "Now it's time," Mr. Claus said. As he lay down, Ms. Claus sang a sentimental song, "Un Jour Tu Verras," about lovers who will reunite one day. Mr. Claus joined in until the injection took effect. "He died singing," Ms. Claus said. "You can't dream of a better death."
But Mr. Mortier remains angry about the fate of his mother, Godelieva De Troyer. She was depressed and emotionally difficult her whole life, he said, and in January last year, told him by email she'd asked for euthanasia. Mr. Mortier was used to his mother's emotionalism, and said doctors he knew insisted she wasn't a candidate for euthanasia.
They were wrong. Belgian law reserves euthanasia for patients with unbearable suffering and incurable conditions. But the suffering need not be physical, and the condition need not be fatal. The law also doesn't require the patient to notify the family.
In the end, in April that year, Mr. Mortier received an email from his wife saying to call a hospital because his mother was dead. Still stunned, he learned at the mortuary he was responsible for moving her body to an anatomy lab, since his mother had donated her body to science. He later received a final letter from his mother, confirming she was being euthanized and explaining how to retrieve her house key.
The doctors, including her primary physician who declined to comment, told Mr. Mortier his mother's desire to die was unequivocal and that she refused entreaties to contact him. Mr. Mortier says the law just gives doctors too much power determining the criteria for death. "What the doctor does is like a god," he said. "He decides if the life is worth living or not."
Write to Naftali.Bendavid at firstname.lastname@example.org