A late-August mercy killing in Libby has generated a broader discussion of Montana's ongoing debate over end-of-life care, steering the focus away from the more controversial issue of physician-assisted suicide.
William "Ted" Hardgrove, 81, shot and killed his wife, Swanie, in their Libby home on Aug. 28 before setting fire to the house and shooting himself. According to Lincoln County Sheriff Daryl Anderson, Swanie suffered severe pain as a result of cerebral palsy. Anderson says he'd known the couple for many years and believes Ted Hardgrove acted out of compassion for his wife, also 81.
"If you knew old Ted like most of us [in Libby] did, there wasn't nothing domestic about it," Anderson says. "He just didn't want her to suffer."
Compassion and Choices, a national nonprofit advocating physician-assisted suicide, released a statement shortly after the incident linking the deaths to the state's contentious end-of-life debate. The Montana Supreme Court last December ruled in Baxter v. Montana to uphold a physician's right to prescribe life-ending medication to terminal patients, and the Legislature is expected to pick up the issue next year. However, details regarding Swanie Hardgrove's medical situation have been scant.
"We don't know if either one was terminally ill," says Compassion and Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee. "What we are saying is that the Baxter decision and the affirmation of that decision in the Legislature will change the culture of end-of-life care so that the people in Libby will not feel that isolation and desperation that drives them to violence."
To date, Compassion and Choices has been careful to focus its case specifically on terminally ill, mentally competent patients in Montana. Coombs Lee says she doesn't know if the Hardgroves' would have qualified for life-ending medication, but she does know these types of mercy killings are all too common.
"It's appalling, the violence that people feel cornered into," she says.
Anderson doesn't doubt the Libby incident has a role to play in the greater debate. In fact, he expects the case will be repeatedly mentioned not to defend physician-assisted suicide but to illustrate that people simply need more options.
"Suicide's a tough thing, and I don't think the Good Lord intended you to suffer either," Anderson says. "But there's other ways of doing it."