Murder or mercy?

On April 22, Tania Clarence suffocated three of her four children. Her daughter Olivia was four and her twin sons Ben and Max were three. Tania, age 42, is the wife of an investment banker and lives in south-west London. After killing her children, she attempted suicide but was found by the family’s nanny and a neighbor.

This story is a tragedy for many reasons. Three innocent lives were taken. A family was destroyed. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying the mother struggled with depression and stress.

I have followed this story since April because the all three children had spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the same diagnosis I have. The initial reporting on this story made me ill – turning my stomach as reporters described the “devastating illness” and “debilitating condition” which overwhelmed the “deeply troubled” mother. Several media outlets stated her purpose in committing this horrible act was to “end their suffering.” Many offered ‘man on the street’ commentary from those who could sympathize with her actions. I can’t help but wonder – if the children did not have this diagnosis, would there be less sympathy towards this woman? Would the outrage felt among those with disabilities be shared by the mainstream media and public?

At a hearing this week where the mother faced a murder charge, the judge accepted her plea of manslaughter by diminished responsibility. According to The Guardian, “…Clarence was suffering from a major depressive episode at the time of the killings which amounted to an ‘abnormality of mind.'” The prosecutor is quoted in the article, saying “…Clarence had previously held the firm belief that the quality of her children’s lives was more important than their longevity – which was ‘entirely understandable’.”

As an adult with SMA her belief is not at all understandable to me. I have never felt particularly debilitated or limited – frustrated from time to time but not debilitated. I don’t feel my quality of life has suffered due to my disability. I recognize I am not the statistical norm when one looks at disability as measured in the United States but I do know many other adults with SMA who share my belief that a good quality of life is achievable. And we are not “suffering.”

I am not a mother. I have never been pregnant, full of dreams for an unborn child, eager to see my offspring develop and grow. I don’t know what it is like for a mother to learn, while pregnant for twins, that her daughter has a neuromuscular disease and most likely the unborn twins will share this diagnosis. I have never experienced mental illness or depression causing me to view suicide as the best course of action.

Here’s what I do know:

  • This was a family of some financial means. They had the ability to employ a nanny, and had purchased a “…£1.5 million (approx. $2.4 million US) home in the south west London suburb of New Malden” which the parents had made accessible according to an article in the Daily Express. While it is expensive to live as a person with a neuromuscular disease, lack of funds should not have been a barrier to assistance with caregiving needs. Whether or not this assistance was available and if it was refused is another story.
  • I worry that other parents who attempt to perform “mercy killings” or successfully murder their children with disabilities will not face murder charges due to “criminal insanity” or “abnormality of mind.” After all, the ableist views commonly expressed tell the world regularly that it is better to die than live with disability. Don’t believe me? Look here, or here, or here, or….
  • I am an advocate for people with disabilities, regardless of type of disability. However, I have never seriously used my disability as an excuse for my actions (other than good seats at a concert). It may sound hypocritical, but I’m honest enough to admit I struggle with those who do “play the gimp card” rather than take responsibility for their actions, blaming them instead on their disability.

After psychiatric evaluation, if the mother in this case is found to have a mental health diagnosis, shouldn’t I want mercy and compassion for her? What does it say about me if I am secretly wanting her to be charged with a more serious crime? Would I care as much if the children did not have disabilities?

I am eager to hear your viewpoint on this case. Perhaps I am too emotionally connected to be unbiased in my thoughts and opinions. I know my own opinions have changed over time, and the way I feel about it today is not the way I felt last month. Asking difficult questions and having discussions about what it is like to be a parent of children with disabilities, or to live as an adult with disabilities, or to live with mental illness may bring further understanding and deeper appreciation.

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11 thoughts on “Murder or mercy?

  1. Very thought provoking. Perhaps you should share this with law students and schools around the country. You passed the blog challenge-

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  2. No matter which way you look at this, it is a tragedy. As you said, lives have already been lost. As a mother, all I can say is that she must have been mentally ill to commit this crime. No one of sound mind chooses to end their child’s life, no matter what the illness or disability. Sometimes, tortured souls do extraordinary deeds. Mental illness or not, I guess she has to face the consequences for her actions. It is up to the judge and jury to decide where mercy fits in the situation.

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  3. Having battled mental illness, and dealing with major depressive disorder personally, I think I can reasonably say that perspecitve, vision, and understanding context pretty much sails out the window. It isn’t a transient phenomena, but a dark pall that colors and shapes everything you interact with, and really makes it hard to find hope or possibiliites other than what you may become fixated on. This is a tragedy, for the children, the family, and the mother.

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  4. It is hard for me to have a solid opinion about this because we don’t know what the true motive for the murder was. The childrens’ disability may not have been as major a factor as has been represented to us. But, to me, the very fact that people say, “Oh, it must have been because the children had disabilities,” and nod their heads in sad understanding, is enough to spark outrage in me.

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  5. You raise some valid questions at the end. Of course, the kids who were murdered deserve equal protection of law, and a lesser charge for their murder is unconscionable. Meanwhile, the mother had her own disability, a mental one, which may have not been properly addressed. Was she fully responsible for her actions? And if she wasn’t, why did not anybody see the warning signs in advance to get the support she would have needed so that this would not have happened? If she can be held responsible, then she must be punished to the fullest extent of the law. If not, then somebody else must be held accountable for failing to act. And procedures must change to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

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    • Yes – so many questions and I hope others are having similar discussions. I want to think that someone must have known the mother was struggling. I hope they offered her assistance. She may have refused it, but I know it must have been difficult to manage care for 3 children under the age of 5, regardless of their disability status. Thank you for weighing in on this!

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  6. Dear Dee
    I have kept your article on my computer. It is just over a year that Olivia, Max and Ben were suffocated in their beds – I have subsequently written a play which I hope to stage (if it’s accepted) at the Cape Town Fringe Festival in South Africa. My aim is to give those three children, and all children who have been killed at the hands of their parents, a voice. I hope that the audience will walk out questioning the term ‘mercy’ killing, questioning whose lives society deem more important and why, and very importantly, betrayal.

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    • I would be interested in following your progress! I am honored my post helped you discover this story. It is a tragedy all around. Please keep me posted on your play. Thank you for reaching out to tell me about it.

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