COMMENT

All too frequently, when a partner kills his disabled loved one, we see it as an act of kindness or mercy.

When a man in Florida killed his wife, who had dementia, before killing himself, a friend said, "If it was a suicide-type thing, it was pure out of love and I'm sorry." When another Florida man fatally shot his wife before dying by suicide, his family described the murder as a "mercy killing." "He could no longer bear to see her suffering" from dementia, her sister told First Coast News.

And this week, New York Times journalist Corina Knoll described her report about Richard Shaver - who killed Alma, his wife who had Alzheimer's disease, while she slept, and then himself - as a tale "of love." The headline called them "sweethearts forever."

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In each of these stories, friends and loved ones frame the death as an end to the victim's suffering; the victim's own wishes rarely come up. In each case, the underlying assumption is that disabled people, particularly those with cognitive disabilities, are obviously better off dead.

Why do we listen to the laments of neighbors and family members about loving murderers and the difficulties of caring for disabled people? A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation described this framing as "killer-centered." The personhoods and motivations of the killers are explored in detail, while their victims are quietly erased and the cultural contexts that fostered murders are hidden.

No federal agency keeps statistics on murder-suicides, but research indicates that the majority of them are perpetrated by men against their romantic partners, usually with a gun. The murders of disabled spouses are no different. Murder-suicides are often described as "mercy killings," and the difficulty of caregiving is often cited as a justification.

But difficulty of this sort is impossible to assess (Shaver refused help getting a home aide or a house nearer to his daughter), and it is irrelevant: No amount of difficulty justifies the taking of a life.

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It is a fundamentally paternalistic proposition to suggest that victims do not get a say in whether they live. Calling their deaths an act of love says their own desires are not valid and they cannot have a say about their own lives.

Alzheimer's may be an extreme case that robs its victims of their capacity to express their wills, but that doesn't mean they forfeit their agency. It certainly does not give someone else the right to determine whether they should forfeit their lives.

Experts say perpetrators see their family members as things they control or as extensions of themselves. Photo / 123RF
Experts say perpetrators see their family members as things they control or as extensions of themselves. Photo / 123RF

How we talk about disabled people's deaths shapes how society values disabled life. Describing a murder as loving and merciful allows men contemplating murdering their wives to believe that their schemes are normal and understandable. It signals that killers are justified or even praised for killing the people they purport to love.

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The truth is that, many times, these murders are not evidence of selflessness but exhibit an inability to separate the perpetrators' needs from those of the victims. At a 2010 National Institute of Justice forum, Richard Gelles, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said perpetrators see their family members as things they control or as extensions of themselves.

This "overenmeshment" erases boundaries between their own identities and the identities of their wives and children. It is easy to erode those boundaries when disabled family members are already seen as less than human by society.

It is even easier when the victim is vulnerable because of a disability. These murders aren't special or different from any other domestic violence and should not be treated differently purely because of a physical condition.

Rather than focus on the killers, people should focus on the humanity of the victims and speak and learn the context from disability organizations, such as Dementia Alliance International. These incidents are not isolated, romantic acts of desperation or the natural outcome of an inadequate health-care system. Murder-suicides involving disability occur because of a culture that devalues the lives of disabled people.