Will Texas Be First State With An Infanticide Law?

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Twolawmakers in Texas have proposed a bill under which postpartum mental illness would be recognized as a legal defense for women. According to the Dallas Morning News, which broke the story this weekend:

"If lawmakers approve the measure, Texas would be the first state to have an infanticide law, said George Parnham, the Houston attorney who defended [Andrea] Yates.

'It's something every civilized country has on its books,' said Parnham, a strong proponent of the legislation. 'The only thing that will change public attitude is education about postpartum issues.'

The bill, introduced earlier this month by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, applies to women who commit the crime within 12 months of giving birth. If jurors find a defendant guilty of murder, they can take testimony about postpartum issues into consideration during the trial's punishment phase.

If jurors believe that the woman's judgment was impaired as a result of childbirth or lactation, they can find her guilty of infanticide – a state jail felony that would carry a maximum punishment of two years in jail …

Postpartum depression is recognized as a legal defense in at least 29 nations, including Britain, [as well as Australia and Canada] which has had an infanticide law on the books since 1922."

Of course, there are a lot of people on the internet and talk radio in Texas who are pretty upset about this bill, many concerned that it would give women carte blanche to go around committing infanticide and not having to take responsibility for their actions. They don't care one whit that most Western countries around the world already havesuch laws.

I can see their point. It's a difficultconcept to graspthat some who commit violent crimes may not be responsible, while others are surely responsible. How do you decide who is and who isn't? And then there's this:"Isn't anyone who would kill their child crazy? Does this mean they'll all get away with it now?" Before I had the unpleasurable opportunity of losing my mind for a brief period, I would have agreed with all of them wholeheartedly, so I understand their perspective. At the same time, I'm not a fan of some of the more ignorant and even downright mean statements being made — if you scroll down to the comments on the Dallas Morning News piece, you'll read somepretty uneducated, unbalancedstuff.

As I'vewritten previously, it is very difficult for people who haven't "lost their minds" to understand howanyone could. We can choose to pretend it doesn't happen, and watch as more crimes are committed that could have been prevented. Or we could try to create better programs to help these people, and when we don't help them, we could take a little responsibility on ourselves.

Fortunately, you can find reasoned discussions of the infanticide bill if you look, like here at Grits for Breakfast, and explanations of whyit might make sense, like here at Coping With Life. As Susan writes on Coping With Life:

Postpartum psychosis is an extremely rare (less than 1 in a thousand) condition in which a mother may be susceptible to “command hallucinations”, i.e. auditory or visual hallucinations which may order her to kill her children in order to save them and her family or prevent evil. This condition presents a true psychological emergency and immediate treatment is required to prevent the possible advancement of the illness that could result in tragedy.

Because such psychotic hallucinations may continue for days at a time and result in the planning of death, it is difficult for a considering jury to believe the mother is truly insane feeling that “insane people are not logical and could not execute a step-by-step plan”. It is this misunderstanding of the course and content of psychotic illness which often brings such outrage and condemnation to the convicted mother during penalty phase of deliberating jurors, resulting in jail terms equivalent to that for intentional murder or manslaughter."

There are actually some sufferers who, in waning moments,are aware they need help, or at least those around them are aware and they try to getthat helpbefore the "bad thing" happens.We can't ignore that a percentage of those peopleare either misdiagnosed, improperly medicated, poorly cared for by untrained providers,and/or released from the hospital without being well … it happens more often than you think.For those who would argue thatmothers with postpartumpsychosis who killcould have, and should have,chosen to ask for help, some have. What about them? What about Andrea Yates, whose psychiatric provider took her off of her antipsychotic medication?!!!

What about this story from the Palm Beach Post about Amy Kern? The paper reports that"Acquaintances portrayed Kern, 30, as a bipolar schizophrenic who had been trying in vain to seek help and medication since a recent pregnancy and postpartum depression exacerbated her condition." Before killing two people, she tried to check into a psychiatric hospital but " … no one would let her in." Why not? What happened?

As Susan Stone pointed out in the Dallas Morning News piece, "We do not want women who abuse children to use this defense. There are very clear guidelines for postpartum psychosis." That part of the story gets missed sometimes I think.

Do you believe there is a difference between a woman who killsa child with ahistory of mental illness or evidence of being mentally ill — for instance she was being treated for a perinatal mood disorder or her family and friends had all shared concern that she was suffering a perinatal mood disorder or her behavior clearly indicated such an illness — and another woman who kills a child without any such history? Might we find that there really are some people whohave beenfailed by everyone around them andwhowere not in control of their thoughts and actions? If so, should they pay a different price?

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. Your previous post (about a woman who killed her children while suffering from PPP and was invited to speak at a Colorado event but the public's outrage kept her from appearing) already had me thinking hard about this issue. Before experiencing PPD, I had no idea what it was like to have your mind and body not in your control. I heard others describe it, but I always felt like if you tried hard enough, you could control the bad thoughts or the physical symptoms. I had a relatively mild (compared to some) meltdown, but it scared the hell out of me because I felt 100% out of control – rather my mind was controling me. When I think about women who kill their children or themselves, I feel like now I have a small glimpse of understanding of how that could happen in a psychotic episode.
    However, I tried to imagine that it happened to me. I tried to imagine "what if I had killed my son while suffering from PPD/PPP?" What punishment would I feel be justified for myself? Honestly, I don't feel like 2 years in jail and then let go would feel right? It seems far too short for taking a child's life. I don't feel like life in a psychiatric hospital would feel right either – if this illness can be treated, why spend your life in a psychiatric hospital if you are "cured?" Nor, do I really feel like life in prison is fair if it wasn't pre-meditated and it was done under a psychotic illness. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I had done something like that. I would say today, that I would want life in prison because I took the life of my child and that wasn't fair to them – just like suffering from a mental illness isn't fair. Seems like a small price to pay for making a child pay the ultimate price. But then again, is it right? I don't know. I just pray it never happens to me or anyone I know. It's horrible and we should do everything we can to get these women the help they need before a tragedy occurs.

  2. "…many concerned that it would give women carte blanche to go around committing infanticide and not having to take responsibility for their actions. "
    Of course because all us crazy women are always looking for ways to kill our kids or other people.
    "Might we find that there really are some people who have been failed by everyone around them and who were not in control of their thoughts and actions? "
    Yes. I sought help and couldn't find it with my son. Thankfully I never had thoughts of hurting anyone but myself and even then never followed through. My husband was a great supporter and did everything he could to help me since the doctors wouldn't.
    Should they pay a different price? I don't really know.. I mean if you get off on the insanity defense as it is, you don't do time like others do anyway…what I would hope would come of this is more education and help available to women…that people will take this more seriously so women can get the help that they need if for no other reason that people would offer help to protect the children and not just say, "well I did it, there is no reason she couldn't either".

  3. "What about this story from the Palm Beach about Amy Kern?…Before killing two people, she tried to check into a psychiatric hospital but "…no one would let her in." Why not? What happened?"
    Though I don't know Amy Kern, I feel reasonably confident that I can tell you what happened. She probably went in feeling that something was seriously wrong. If she did manage to speak to a doctor, she probably expressed a desire to be hospitalized but wouldn't confide the truth of why. Which woman would feel comfortable expressing that she is experiencing violent, suicidal or homicidal urges she doesn't feel she has control over? The biggest fear being that people would think she actually wants to do these things and not understand that she is feeling compelled to do them (as happens when women have PPP). Though they might have known she was postpartum, doctors, operating under the belief taht PPP is extremely rare, likely didn't even think PPP was a possibility and sent her on her way. I can easily believe that this is what happened because it's what happened to me and other women with PPP that I know. So in response to your question about whether there are people that have been failed by everyone around them, I would say a resounding YES.
    Unfortunately, I think this happens most often when a woman is suffering from PPP because of a reason linked to my biggest pet peeve. Which is: everyone in the world (including those in the postpartum community) always feeling it necessary to emphasize that PPP is rare. I can think of no illness that is characterized in this way even when I think of or google information about illnesses that truly are rare (relatively speaking) like Multiple Sclerosis 2-10/100 000 or Cyctic Fibrosis which occurs in 1/2500-90 000 live births.
    Deep down, I know that it has to do with a fear of frightening new moms, but the reality is: no one can get PPP just by hearing about it. And what is the worst thing that is going to happen if a woman thinks she has PPP when in fact she has PPD or PPOCD? Well, she will probably rush herself to the doctor, talk about what she is experiencing, have her concerns dispelled and be given treatment for whatever she does have. Which doesn't sound all that bad if you ask me.
    I guess what I am saying is that we need to change the key messages about PPP from:
    PPP is a rare disorder that afflicts 1-2 in 1000…
    to:
    PPP can strike as many as 1 in 500 women and is a medical emergency that needs and does respond to treatment.
    With a message like this, doctors would actually feel the need to bone up on postpartum mood disorders. Additionally, afflicted women and their families would feel comforted knowing that even the horrific symptoms of an illness like PPP can be treated.
    On the issue of what is an appropriate price to pay for a woman with PPP that has taken the life of her child, I think the knowledge of what she has done is more than enough of a price. Of course the woman needs treatment(as an in-patient in a psychiatric facility)to recover and gain insight, but for people to suggest that a woman – who was medically ill at the time – needs to spend time in prison seems like the ultimate of cruel. In fact,based on what a psychiatrist friend who worked in forensic psychiatry told me, many people who end up taking the life of someone while insane never make it out of psychiatric facilities because they will forever pose a threat to THEMSELVES. Once better or stable, knowledge of what they did keeps them perpetually at risk of committing suicide. How sad is that?

  4. I'm really tired of hearing about women not getting the treatment they so desperately need. Most of the tragedies we hear about could have been prevented if healthcare professional(s) properly diagnosed and treated these women (and don't turn anyone away that seek help)! The key that would make a difference for women with perinatal mood disorders–particularly those with PPP or who have a risk of PPP–is public awareness and screening, which is why the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act is SO CRITICAL! For positive change to occur to help mothers in our society and stamp out ignorance, this Act must pass. So please, everyone, let your legislators know you are in support of it!

  5. joan arndt says:

    You wrote: "Postpartum depression is recognized as a legal defense in at least 29 nations, including Britain, [as well as Australia and Canada] which has had an infanticide law on the books since 1922."
    Yeah, and Canada is where a man who murdered his 12 year old disabled daughter is treated as a hero.
    http://alexschadenberg.blogspot.com/2008/07/tracy
    So far as your promoting the so-called Melanie Stokes Mothers Act is Concerned, all I have to say is that you are a pathetic tool of the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical industry.
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0812/S00107.htm
    PS I'm not a Scientologist. If that daffy cult didn't exist, your keepers in Big Pharma would have to invent it to distract Amerika from its crimes aganist Humanity. Sometimes I suspect $cientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was a Pharmaceutical industry mole whose long-terem assignment was to create a ridiculous group that the drug cartel's lapdog media could lump all opposition to psychiatrists into and by association, dismiss it.