Berit Hedeby was a journalist, a singer, an author, and social welfare debater. She was one of the instigators of the organisation known as BRIS, Barnens rätt i samhället (childrens’ rights in society) as well as of RTVD, Rätten till vår död, for active assisted dying.
Berit Hedeby was born in Linköping. She was the eldest daughter born to Albert Hedeby, an engineer and forester, and his wife Margot, née Tolérus. Her siblings were named Kerstin, Astrid, Ingrid and Catharina. After having attended Linköpings kommunala flickskola, Berit Hedeby then began to take singing lessons whilst also working as a journalist for the Östgöten newspaper.
During the 1950s Berit Hedeby took singing and drama lessons and performed and sang in various revue shows and operettas for a number of years. She made her debut as a solo singer during the 1960s and her first public performances were made on the radio programme called Frukostklubben as well as at church concerts. She also went on tour with Rikskonserter performing a programme she had devised herself, “Kärlek och protest”, containing music and lyrics by Taube, Bellman, Love Almqvist, Brecht, Bierman, and Joe Glazer. She was supported in these performances by pianists including Jan Eyron and Rolf Lindblom and the lutist Jörgen Rörby.
At an early point Berit Hedeby realised that in America and in the wider world awareness was growing of severe cases of child abuse. Discussion of this subject in Sweden began during the 1970s followed in 1971 by public debates held at Kulturhuset in Stockholm as well as a travelling exhibition called Barnmisshandel i Sverige, which involved 40 screens and provocative material and generated a lot of attention. Many of the exhibition visitors supported the proposal to set up an association for strengthening the rights of children within society. This childrens’ rights organisation was also to serve as a contact point for everyone seeking to eradicate child abuse. Berit Hedeby, who was already a forceful social welfare debater, became one of the instigators of Barnens rätt i samhället (BRIS). She also served as the organisation’s first chair albeit only for a couple of years. She and her friend, the author Gunnel Linde whom she had known since the 1940s, nevertheless continued to write about child abuse matters for a number of years. Together they campaigned for a new Swedish law to prohibit corporal punishment and it was enacted in 1979. The law was based on the needs of the child instead of those of the parent which, according to Berit Hedeby and Gunnel Linde were far too strong. Berit Hedeby believed that childrearing should be based on interplay, care, and mutual respect. She published her thinking in 1975 in her book entitled Barnmisshandel i Sverige. The first sentence reads: “The most dangerous place for a child is the home”. The book portrays a very dark image of the conditions endured by many children. Berit Hedeby was also very critical of the fact that child-welfare agencies rarely notified the police of cases of abuse. The book also highlighted the problem of the disadvantageous start to life suffered by understimulated children.
Berit Hedeby’s next book, Familjebehandling. Frälsning eller bluff?, published two years later in 1978, also presented a shocking portrayal of the children’s home situations. Berit Hedeby did not believe that the family should be retained as a unit at any cost and she understood that it was not possible to achieve absolute fairness in extreme situations. Her criticism was primarily directed towards the so-called “home-based therapy” which she saw as a new threat for children. Berit Hedeby believed that those who abused their own children had often had troubled childhoods themselves. Thus what was needed was a break in the social and psychological pattern by providing care for these endangered children as early as possible. Another important issue that Berig Hedeby became involved in was the discussion surrounding sexual predation on children. She believed that children involved in such cases never lied.
Further, Berit Hedeby initiated discussion regarding assisted dying. This was not only a sensitive but also a taboo subject which her empathy once again drove her to actively support. Along with Professor Ingemar Hedenius and Mårten Werner, a pastor and parliamentarian, she in 1973 instigated the Rätten till vår död organisation (now known as Rätten till en Värdig Död, RTVD). This was the beginning of a long and heated debate on assisted dying. She published her views in two books: Ja till dödshjälp published in 1978 and in Mitt liv är mitt! released in 1980. After serving nine years as chair of the national organisation Berit Hedeby resigned. As a mark of gratitude for her contribution in 1982 she became the first person to be elected as an honorary member of the organisation.
Berit Hedeby, along with a doctor who also belonged to the organisation, assisted the journalist Sven-Erik Handberg who was suffering from MS to commit suicide. She was accused of murder. The Supreme Court sentence delivered in December 1979 sent to her prison for a year. Many commentators viewed this sentence as illogical and upsetting, but she nevertheless served her time. Berit Hedeby was initially incarcerated at Hinseberg women’s prison but after three months there she was moved to the Vångdalen open correctional facility near Uppsala. She eventually moved again to Lindome near Gothenburg. On 20 August 1980 she was returned to Vångdalen, during which time her appeal was heard and her sentence was reduced by half. She left Vångdalen on 25 September the day after she was officially released.
Berit Hedeby reported Hinseberg to the Justitieombudsmannen (JO) in October 1980 because she believed she had been treated unjustly. She described her debilitating prison experiences in a very personal and engaging book entitled I de fördömdas värld, published in 1982. The book contained descriptions of the beauty of nature in an effort to show how this had helped her to survive imprisonment. She also defended her decision to help another human being to die by stating she had only supplied that person with the same help she would want herself were she to find herself in the same unbearable situation: “every hour he persisted was a torment”. The journalist had had no desire to live as a paraplegic, helpless and entirely dependent on others. Berit Hedeby continued to be under the heavy glare of massmedia attention. She subsequently also went on to work with Informationscentrum EXIT, another organisation campaigning for assisted dying, which primarily disseminated information on the option of setting up a type of living will.
Berit Hedeby later became involved in supporting Israel and was heavily critical of Radio Islam. In 1990 she spent six months working as a volunteer at three different kibbutzes in Israel.
Her friend Claes Göran Kjellander used the following words in his tribute to Bergit Hedeby published in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in 1996: “Berit Hedeby achieved more than what both she herself and her surroundings perhaps understood. Her arguments could not be countered, she rejected compromise, she created and changed by continually advancing forwards regardless of obstacles in her way. Whilst she continued to tear down walls others were left to deal with the rebuilding.” He also believed that Berit Hedeby did not seek to be in charge, she wanted to change the issues which moved her. “Sometimes she burned not just herself but even those she meant to protect. She suffered on behalf of her sense of ideological and ideal justice which often placed her in situations of conflict.”
Berit Hedeby died, aged 72, as the result of a heart attack in 1996. Her children and her grandchildren remember her as “a lovely grandmother – exciting to be with!”
She is buried at the memorial garden in the Adolf Fredrik cemetery.