The BBC and the Guardian report the particularly tragic story of 95 year old Denver Beddows who admitted battering his 88-year-old wife Olive with a pan and a hammer at their home in Warrington. Mrs Beddows survived the attempted murder. Mr Beddows received a two year suspended sentence.

Apparently Mrs Beddows had pleaded with her husband to end her life so that she would not die in a care home. This is given credibility by the fact that Mrs Beddows has now forgiven her husband and wished to be reunited with him.

The story is complicated by the fact that according to psychiatric reports Mr Beddows had a history of depression dating back to 1962 and was “clearly under a great degree of mental strain and was not thinking straight”.

Without a compassionate right-to-die law, it is hard to see how tragedies like this can be avoided. With an appropriate law, Mrs Beddows would be able to formally request medical assistance to die. Before being granted, the request would be assessed by multiple independent professionals who would evaluate, amongst other things:

  • Did Mrs Beddow have the mental capacity to make a life ending decision?
  • The medical situation leading to Mrs Beddows request – presumably an 88 year-old, in need of a care home had a serious illness. What were the prospects of a recovery that Mrs Beddows would find meaningful?
  • Whether Mrs Beddows was being coerced into making her request. Was there evidence of a long held view that she would want an assisted death if she was so ill as to require permanently living in a care home – something that she foresaw that she would find intolerable. In its best form such a view would be documented in a signed and witnessed advance statement. This would help doctors and others assessing the case to be confident that it was her own choice. MDMD advocate such advance statements to be made at the same time as an Advance Decision.
  • Whether all other possible solutions have been properly examined.
  • Was she suffering from a curable depression?
  • Might she adapt, given time, to a changed situation following some life-changing change in circumstances.

If, following careful evaluation by multiple independent professionals, the conclusion was that her wish to end her life was safe and persistent, then with appropriate medical assistance, she could have the good death she wished for. If the request was found to be unsafe and rejected it would not be defensible for someone to attempt murder or assist suicide – so vulnerable people would be better protected than at present.

For some people, even the best nursing or palliative care is not the type of end of life they want. Instead of fighting on against inevitably worsening illness, they would prefer to peacefully go to sleep and not wake up, often in their own home, possibly in the company of those closest to them. Why should they be denied this rational choice?

In the absence of an appropriate right-to-die law, cases like this will persist. Untrained, emotionally involved people will take the law into their own hands. They will try to assist in suicide, or even attempt murder. It may go horribly wrong, as in this case. It could be very traumatic. The person may not die but be left with serious injuries. Worse, once the life has been ended there is no way of knowing whether the action really was at the deceased’s request. Where are the safeguards in that? Yet that is what parliament decided was a “safer” option than really tackling the issue of what right-to-die legislation this country should have. The result: people who would like an assisted death have to continue to suffer, against their will, and be denied the good death they seek. And in addition, people, like Olive Beddows, have to beg apparently well-meaning people to assist suicide or murder. They risk themselves ending up in a worse situation. The person assisting them will be subjected to, at best, a police interrogation, and at worst, criminal charges and a custodial sentence. The parallel with backstreet abortions before abortion was legalised is chilling.