A “mercy killing” outside the law

One issue that seldom surfaces in discussions about the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia is the message it may send to unbalanced people. A snapshot of what could happen is the death in February of 81-year-old David Paterson, who was dying of cancer in a nursing home in Yorkshire, in the UK. Mr Paterson was a regular church-goer and a firm opponent of euthanasia. However, in his last days, he became emaciated and weak, although his pain was controlled with morphine.

A fellow parishioner with alcohol problems, 54-year-old Heather Davidson, befriended the widower and became very concerned about his health. One day she rang a cancer support organisation to ask whether smothering her new friend would make her a murderer. “If he was a dog he would have been put down months ago,” she said. Although she was clearly told that it would be murder, Ms Davidson took matters into her own hands and smothered Mr Paterson. She regarded this as a “mercy killing”.

Ms Davidson, it turns out, knew a thing or two about dogs, as she had a previous conviction for attempting to smother her neighbour’s pet. She was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to Mr Paterson’s murder. “You were only were saving him a few hours of suffering. In so doing you deprived him of what he wanted most, a natural death. This private man did not in death have a private ending,” the judge said. 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | euthanasia, mercy killing

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