Labour peer says wife's death made him think again on assisted suicide

North East peer Lord Beecham says law on assisted suicide must be changed

Lord Beecham seated on a bench put up in memory of his late wife Brenda
Lord Beecham seated on a bench put up in memory of his late wife Brenda

A North East peer has told how his wife’s death convinced him to support an assisted suicide bill.

Former Newcastle Council leader Lord Beecham has spoken of how he knew his wife would have considered ending her life, if the option was available, had her pain become too much in her dying days.

His intervention comes just days before the supreme court considers three cases arguing that laws making it a criminal offence to help someone take their own life impose “extraordinary and cruel” restrictions on personal freedoms.

Brenda Beecham died in 2010 after her bowel cancer spread to her liver and lung and overcame her.

As Parliament considers former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer’s Bill to allow those suffering deadly illnesses to be helped in taking their own lives, the Beechams’ last years together were put before peers.

Lord Beecham revealed how he knew that if his wife’s pain had become too bad she would have preferred to “cease upon the midnight with no pain”, as in the Keats poem.

Brenda Beecham, wife of Lord Beecham, died three years ago
Brenda Beecham, wife of Lord Beecham, died three years ago
 

He told peers: “My wife died five weeks after I was introduced into your Lordships’ House, having suffered from bowel cancer for two years, with secondaries in the liver and lung. It was always a treatable but not curable condition.

“She was the daughter and sister of doctors. She nursed her mother, who died of cancer, in our home. She was a health visitor, a nurse and a Relate counsellor.

“From the outset of her illness, she was very clear that, should she suffer considerable pain, she would wish to be helped to end her life.

“She received wonderful treatment from the National Health Service in Newcastle and from the hospice in which she spent her last few days. Fortunately, she never experienced quite the degree of pain that would have led her to invoke the remedy, which in any event would not have been available to her.”

Lord Beecham said that his experiences with his wife’s cancer left him in no doubt that the law needed to be changed.

He added: “She lived very fully in those two years. She made a television programme about bowel cancer; she made a DVD about stoma, having undergone a cystostomy; and, with friends, she produced a book about living with cancer. Therefore, she was very conscious of the condition and anxious that people should learn from her experience.

“However, I know that she would have wished me to express support for the choice that in the end she did not have to make.

“I suppose that I had the dubious privilege – nevertheless, I felt it to be a privilege – of being with her when she died in the hospice.

“She had been sedated and was out of pain for those last few days. Of course, not everybody has that opportunity, and there are those who would clearly wish to have the chance to end what can be a very painful experience.”

The peer, a shadow justice minister in the Lords, said that a new law on assisted suicide would end a situation in which a minority can travel to Switzerland for end of life assistance while others either suffer in pain or place medical professionals and loved ones in the troubling position of having to break the law to end their suffering.

Critics of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill say it would be a “blank cheque” for euthanasia, despite supporters saying it would only apply to mentally competent adults with less than six months to live.

Lord Beecham added: “There are clearly many who would adopt the approach that Dylan Thomas advised in a memorable poem: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

“For those who do not want to go gentle, whether they want to rage or not, of course we must offer every conceivable support to allow them to do that. However, others would take a different line of poetry. They might take the line from Keats and wish ‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain.’”

In the debate Lord Davies of Stamford, the former Labour minister, said it was an “illusion” and “self-deception” to believe that medical professionals do not actively determine how and when people will die on an everyday basis. He said he knew of doctors who speak privately of “helping the patient on his way” with lethal doses of drugs.

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