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Rallying Around a Baby-Killer
August 28, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

The Houston Area branch of NOW (HANOW) has positioned itself politically to benefit from national headlines over the expected trial of the child-killing mother Andrea Pia Yates. HANOW has announced a Support Coalition to raise funds and sympathy for Yates who they say was driven to murder by postpartum depression. FEMNET, the online feminist voice for HANOW, requests people to send "cards or notes of caring" to Yates in her prison cell. I searched but found no record of FEMNET requesting "notes of caring" be sent to the funeral of her children.

NOW is staking a claim on postpartum depression, which it calls "fairly common." A jumbled resolution passed at its recent national conference called for opposition to the death penalty, increased funding for medical research, and for "the law enforcement community" to view postpartum behavior in full context. Patricia Ireland, then head of NOW, explained the political aspect of that context. She said the Yates case revealed America as a "patriarchal society" where "women are imprisoned at home with their children." To NOW, stay-at-home moms are not merely poised to murder their children at alarming rates, they are also victims of white male culture whenever they snap.

Yates is being cast as a political martyr, and with some success. The Today Show ran the address of a defense fund for Yates. On ABC's "Good Morning America" show, Rosie O'Donnell proclaimed her "overwhelming empathy" for Yates. In her trend-setting article in Newsweek (July 2), Pulitzer prize-winner Anna Quindlen wrote, "Every mother I've asked about the Yates case has the same reaction...[S]he gets this look. And the looks say that at some forbidden level she understands." The Every Woman approach to Yates has spread so that even the normally commonsensical Abigail Trafford confessed to a "kind of empathy" for the murdering mom in a recent Washington Post column (August 21).

Using words like "empathy," NOW has adopted a mask of compassion for the stay-at-home moms toward whom it was formerly so dismissive: they are political victims who are isolated in the home by male culture. NOW is ringing an alarm bell about postpartum depression, which drives non-working mothers to infanticide. It seems determined to blame the murder of the Yates children on everything but the hands that held the struggling heads underwater.

But there is nothing compassionate about sculpting a myth of non-working moms as murderers. There is nothing humane about demonizing a psychiatric disorder that deserves serious attention and depressed women who deserve a lot better.

The term "postpartum depression" is being used in a confusing manner. For example, it sometimes includes conditions like the "blues" -- the weeping and mood swings -- that frequently follow child birth and can last for several weeks.

Postpartum depression is actually a more serious and persistent disorder. Textbooks characterized it by symptoms such as despondency, inability to cope, over-concern for the baby's health, loss of memory, and thoughts of suicide. (Killing your baby is not listed as a symptom or outcome of the depression.) Because it is under-researched, hard data on the frequency of postpartum depression is difficult to come by. Two recent studies (Righetti-Veltema 1998 and Whitton 1996) estimate the rate to be about 10 to 15 percent for first time mothers.

These figures are disturbingly high. And they explain the flood of email I received from depressed mothers in response to an earlier column I wrote about Yates. Over and over, they said the same thing. The increasing tendency to lump postpartum depression in with infanticide made them afraid to tell anyone about their depression. They didn't want to be viewed as threats to their children, they worried about being committed. Because postpartum depression had been demonized, they were less likely to risk being stigmatized by seeking help.

NOW should be discussing postpartum psychosis -- a comparatively rare and much more serious disorder -- that includes psychotic reactions such as hallucinations and delusions. The statistic generally quoted for the frequency of postpartum psychosis is 1 per 1000 births or .1 percent. If accurate, this means that 99.9 percent of new mothers do not experience a mental breakdown in which reality dissolves. In which mothers obey delusions that command them to kill their children.

NOW's "defense" of non-working women who suffer from postpartum depression is actually a demonization of them. NOW loudly celebrates "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" but it pathologizes the choice to remain at home with her.

Among the headline-grabbing measures HANOW is considering in support of Yates are: a candlelight vigil the night before the competency hearing; a Court watch; becoming "Friends of the Court...in conjunction with the desires of the defense team"; a march; and, a media watch of how the case is portrayed so that no "exploitation" occurs.

If HANOW wishes to expose exploitation, it should look in the mirror. Of course, it will not. If I so glibly excused the murder of children, I wouldn't be able to stand my own reflection either.

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