On September 1, the Missoulian published a story that is becoming all-too-familiar, titled "Fire investigation reveals 'mercy killing in Libby"
An investigation into a house fire in northwestern Montana took a grisly turn when authorities discovered the elderly couple living there were involved in a murder-suicide that police say was meant to be a mercy killing.
Authorities originally believed that Ted and Swanie Hardgrove, both 81, died in the Saturday morning fire that burned down their home in a rural area of Lincoln County north of Libby, where they had been longtime residents.
The bodies were taken to the state crime lab, where it was discovered that both Hardgroves had single gunshot wounds to their heads, Lincoln County Sheriff's Capt. Roby Bowe said Wednesday.
Amid the charred wreckage, a gun was discovered near Ted Hardgrove's body and a letter in which he explained his actions.
Authorities concluded that Ted Hardgrove shot his wife, set fire to the house and then shot himself, Bowe said.
"It was more an act of despair out of love. They both had medical issues. She was in a huge amount of pain," Bowe said. "He could not take it anymore. He could not see her in that amount of pain anymore."
Swanie Hardgrove had cerebral palsy and her suffering had grown intense in the days leading up to the shooting, Bowe said. She had been in and out of hospitals for some time and her treatment was not easing the pain.
Ted Hardgrove also had medical issues, although Bowe declined to elaborate.
As I've seen in other cases, part of the problem in how this article - and subsequent coverage - gets framed is a result of the careless and even irresponsible comments from a law officer, in this case Sheriff's Captain Roby Rowe. His own account - sympathetic to the man who killed his wife and burned down his house - gives permission to everyone to refer to Swanie Hardgrove's murder as a "mercy killing."
It gets worse, though.
On September 4, a follow-up story appeared in the newspaper. It begins with yet another sheriff describing Ted Hardrove's murder of his wife as an act of mercy. Then the tone and message changes. The title of the article might give you a clue - "Libby shooting, arson tragedy puts focus on 'aid in dying'"
"What we want people to know," said Steve Hopcraft, "is there is help and information out there."
Hopcraft works with a nonprofit called Compassion and Choices, a group that offers free end-of-life planning, counseling and options.
"We believe that these tragic and violent deaths are 100 percent preventable," Hopcraft said. "It's a matter, really, of getting the information out."
Information such as the fact that Montana is among three states - Oregon and Washington are the other two - where doctors are allowed to provide what's known as "aid in dying." They can prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, who can then choose whether and when to use the pills.
Voters in Oregon and Washington approved such measures, which come with safeguards and careful case reporting. In Montana, no such structure exists. Instead, the state Supreme Court ruled last New Year's Eve that no public policy here prohibits aid in dying, so it's legal but largely unregulated.
It's also largely unknown, which is what Hopcraft hopes to change.
"Talking about death can't kill you," he said, "but it can help you have the peaceful death that everyone wants."
His group provides counseling, and help with wills and advance directives. They lay out options, such as hospice, and involve entire families. And they do it for free.
"It's just a phone call," Hopcraft said. A toll-free call to 1-800-247-7421. "You can call any time, at each step along the way. Most of us are total amateurs when it comes to approaching death. We don't know what the options are, or where to get information. Call us; we'll help you understand what's available, so you can make choices."
Most of all, he said, Compassion and Choices helps people communicate. Doctors and patients, patients and family, family and physicians. "Because too often," he said, "failure to communicate ends in less than optimal care."
Or, more tragically, in an anguished couple choosing the only option they think is available.
Time for another Bullshit Alert. Technically, there is no statute in Montana authorizing doctors to hand out lethal prescriptions to "terminally ill" patients. But that is the least of the problems here:
* There is no indication in either of the articles that this was something "the couple" decided, but was something that Ted Hardgrove planned on his own.
* There is no indication that Swanie Hardgrove wanted to die or even knew that he planned to kill her.
* Neither individual was 'terminally ill.'
This looks a lot like other elderly homicides/suicides in which the husband is the perpetrator. Some of the research on these killings was shared in an earlier blog entry (quoting researcher Donna Cohen):
“These are not acts of love. They are not compassionate homicides. They are acts of desperation and depression, other forms of psychopathology, or domestic violence.”.
Dr Cohen’s research indicates that older men – who almost always initiate the acts – routinely proceed without their wife’s knowledge or consent. She says true pacts occur in perhaps one half of 1 per cent of elder homicide-suicides.
Of the hundreds of homicide-suicide deaths in the US each year, the rate amongst over 55s is twice that of under 55s. Homicide-suicides now account for about three per cent of all suicides, and about 12 per cent of homicides in the older population.
“One of our most distressing findings is evidence that older women who are killed are not knowing or willing participants,” says Dr Cohen. “Often they are killed in their sleep or shot in the back of the head or chest.”
Her research indicates that about a third of elder homicide-suicides occur in a context of domestic violence, an ugly contrast to the Norman Rockwell image of loving clan matriarch and patriarch
The picture of the male perps isn't exactly one of someone who would want to go to his physician and discuss how and why he wants to kill his non-terminally ill spouse.
But this coverage - and the slant that Conflation & Con jobs (aka "Compassion & Choices) has put on it shouldn't come as a surprise. I predicted as much earlier this year when the organization issued a press release exploiting a murder/suicide in Connecticut that uses the same themes, even some of the same phrasing. In that case, the murdered wife had dementia. Other than that, what I wrote at the time (http://notdeadyetnewscommentary.blogspot.com/2010/05/connecticut-assisted-suicide-advocates.html) applies to this latest exploitation of a tragedy as well:
There are only two ways I can think of right now to interpret this cynical exploitation of a tragic situation:
1. C&C is testing the limits of the public's gullibility. They might be emboldened right now, seeing how the Final Exit Network - with its "open door" policy of suicide assistance to nonterminal old, ill and disabled people have gotten a sympathetic free ride in the press - and in many cases misreport the group as "aiding" people with "terminal illnesses." They might also have been pleasantly surprised at how the combined marketing efforts of HBO and CNN have repackaged Jack Kevorkian - from a lawless creepy ghoul to an eccentric champion for the terminally ill. So maybe they're keeping they're fingers crossed that maybe the public really is too stupid to notice that the person who was killed wasn't dying and didn't ask to die.
2. It's also possible that C&C is testing the waters with this release. Anyone familiar with the passions of assisted suicide/ euthanasia activists knows that the "terminally ill" limitation being promoted at present is just the first step in an incrementalist strategy. Most of the supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia want much broader "elegibility" - similar to the expansive eligibility in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
For another take on this situation, check this post by Wesley Smith at Secondhand Smoke (http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/secondhandsmoke/2010/09/04/compassion-and-choices-uses-murdersuicide-to-advertise-doctor-prescribed-death-in-montana/). -- Stephen Drake