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On Not Demonizing Mothers Who Kill

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Cara at the Curvature has an interesting post up about women who kill their newborn infants or who allow them to die from neglect. Neonaticide, of course, is nothing new. In Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, which is read on the Jewish day of mourning Tisha B’Av, women (there a metaphor for the felled city of Jerusalem)eat their own infants out of starvation (2:20 or 4:10; this isn’t my favorite translation). But there, the women are not condemned for their acts; the prophets contextualize them in the context of their starvation in the brutalized city.

Then there are more modern and salacious (media friendly) stories of teens flushing newborns or stillborns down toilets at the prom or of women with severe and untreated post-partum psychosis harming or killing their young children (Andrea Yates, most famously, though her act is more often called filicide because her kids were not infants). And of course, the other week, we saw the arrest of a Maryland woman who hid her stillborn son under her sink and was later found to have kept the remains of other ostensibly stillborn fetuses, and who has been charged with murder (initially for the stillbirth and more recently for an earlier live birth after which the infant died).

What are we to make of these cases? The societal impulse, as Cara discusses, is to condemn, jail, and not explore further. But as a professor of neuropsychology noted in a recent LA Times article, the scenarios that drive women to kill their newborns are complex and manifold.


Perhaps society’s response should be similarly nuanced (a pipe dream, I know). Safe surrender (or baby Moses) laws are a start and have been successful in some places in Europe, but they face opposition in the US from adoption rights and other child welfare advocates who say they undermine established child welfare policies (which work so well). The laws are also sometimes self-defeating. Last summer, for example, a woman who anonymously left her infant at a South Carolina hospital pursuant to the state’s safe dropoff law, was hunted down and arrested after it was discovered that the baby had cocaine metabolites in its system. What kind of incentive does that create?

As Cara rightly points out, these cases often bring into sharp focus several threads of discourse: abortion rights access, domestic violence, child welfare, to name a few. She says:

And if abortion isn’t right for the woman in question, we’re still dealing with social pressures concerning sex– i.e., girls terrified to tell their parents that they’re pregnant because of their attitudes towards virginity until marriage. It’s obviously the absolute extreme end of the spectrum, but we certainly can’t want a society where girls feel that hiding their pregnancies out of despair and killing their newborns in a panic is a better option than telling their religious parents that they’re pregnant.

I can’t help but feel that this issue, as large or as small as it actually may be, is extremely intertwined with all of the problems in America surrounding sex education, our sexually obsessed/fearful culture, a really shitty approach to women’s health, and the apparent difficulty with treating women like full and equal human beings. I also can’t help but feel that “safe surrender” laws are only slightly more than a band aid over a tiny section of much larger, looming problems, and that all of us deserve a hell of a lot better.

Indeed.

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