When British medical ethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva published their paper After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? in the Journal of Medical Ethics they were met, unsurprisingly, with a storm of controversy – even denounced in the House of Congress!
The normal term for after-birth abortion is infanticide, with a special category called neonaticide, which refers to infants killed within 24 hours of birth. Most of these very young infants are killed by their mothers – it is exceptionally rare for a father to kill his newborn.
What the discussion surrounding post-natal abortion and infanticide fails to recognize is that we already have de facto post natal abortion rights in effect: some people who murder their newborns face no consequences even when criminally convicted.
Fathers who kill their infants feel the full wrath of the law.
Let’s start with mothers. The usual profile for women who murder their infants? They tend to be young, poor, unmarried, with limited social supports, a history of mental illnesses and they have hidden their pregnancies from those around them. When the baby arrives, they panic and kill the child. The population most at risk of being murdered in the United States? Children under the age of one. The most likely murderer? Their mothers. The most likely victim? A son.
That’s rather interesting. When a mother kills her own child, she is more likely to kill a son.
Amanda Hein gave birth to her son in a Pennsylvania sports bar, smothered him in a trash bag, stuffed his body in the toilet tank and then continued watching a pay-per-view wrestling match. Pennsylvania has safe haven laws in place that would have allowed Hein to surrender all parental rights with no further responsibilities on her part, but wrestling!
Amanda is not alone, either.
What happens to these women? Legally, the deliberate killing of any human being once born is murder. Amanda is facing a charge of criminal homicide and prosecutors have the option of seeking the death penalty.
The reality? That probably won’t happen. For one thing, Amanda is white. And pretty. As with virtually all crimes, pretty white girls get special treatment, and infanticide is no different. According to Jocelyn Lewis, women of color and poor women are filtered through a “bad” framework, and go to jail far more often than middle class white ladies who kill their babies – white women tend to be seen as “mad” rather than “bad”.
Michelle Oberman examined 96 cases of mothers killing their infants from 1988 – 1995, finding that an extraordinarily high number of infants are killed within 24 hours of birth, and that no matter how old the baby is when killed, society’s response to the mothers who killed them is deeply ambivalent.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the baby’s best protection against being killed is absent from the woman’s life: the baby’s biological father. As noted, it is extremely rare for men to kill their newborns. The absence of the father is a contributing factor to the death of the infants, almost always. Oberman gives no thought as to why the men are absent, and in her suggestions for how to prevent neonaticide in particular, she does not consider that having the men present in the lives of the pregnant women in a meaningful way could assist in saving these baby’s lives.
Not particularly surprising.
Nor is it surprising to discover the reaction of the criminal justice system to women who kill the most vulnerable, most defenceless of victims. And many of these deaths are not pretty. Babies were drowned, strangled, thrown from windows, had their skulls crushed or were stabbed with scissors, and then generally thrown in the trash (p. 30). An ugly business indeed.
Oberman notes the “bad” and “mad” dichotomy, and that mothers defined as “bad” tend to be poor or women of color, and they receive the harshest sentencing. Women who can successfully argue that they were affected by mental disorders either pre-existing or arising directly as the result of pregnancy and birth are sentenced to “treatment” and “therapy” rather than jail time. Oberman notes that even in cases that evoke public outrage, “neonaticide defendants are frequently accused of first degree murder, [but] they are seldom convicted of this crime”.
But only when the defendant is a woman.
Let’s look at what happens to men who kill their infant children. As noted, it is extremely rare for men to kill newborns, but tragically, not so rare for older infants to die at the hands of their fathers.
Dylan Kuhn is a rare example of a young father being treated leniently by the justice system, receiving only 90 days for accidentally killing his infant daughter in a moment of frustration. Kuhn’s youth and inexperience was seen as a contributing factor, as well as his deep remorse and lack of intent. The sentence was predictably met with outrage, with commenters calling for life imprisonment and harsh treatment.
Joshua David Petersen was not so lucky. He received a life sentence with no parole for killing his infant son, while in the grips of a deep depression.
Shamsiddin Abdur-Raheem got 30 years for killing his infant daughter by throwing her in a river.
Reynaldo Sanchez will spend 13.5 years in prison for killing his infant son.
Chris Fitzpatrick was sentenced to life for crushing his infant daughter’s head with a cinder block just hours after she was born.
Jennifer Barisse, Fitzpatrick’s partner received seven years for the crime.
Yes, you read that correctly. Chris and Jennifer together murdered their newborn daughter and buried her body. He got a sentence of life, and she will be out in seven years.
Dahlia Lithwick writing at Slate wonders why this discrepancy exists.
….women who kill their children in this country are disproportionately hospitalized or treated, while men who do so are disproportionately jailed, even executed.
Dahlia identifies one important rationale for our disparate treatment of men and women when it comes to infanticide: we treat children as the property of women.
We still view children as the mother’s property. Since destroying one’s own property is considered crazy while destroying someone else’s property is criminal, women who murder their own children are sent to hospitals, whereas their husbands are criminals, who go to jail or the electric chair.
So much for patriarchy, huh? Men treat women and children as property? The electric chair says nope!
What Dahlia is missing is the fractured sense of agency and responsibility we assign to adult women. Women, particularly when they are in the process of dramatic hormonal shifts, such as those that accompany pregnancy, labor and birth, have equally dramatically reduced culpability. Women’s hormones give them a pass and they are not considered to bear the same responsibility as men, no matter what the hormonal state of the man happens to be.
Indeed, certain screechy, absurdly hateful, dowdy feminist writers have absolutely no problem trotting out the issue of male hormones in order to accuse men of “devolving” into …. well, women, essentially.
Now it is unstable male temperament that is causing alarm. Male politicians are engaging in sneaky, catty, weepy, ditzy, shrewish behaviour that is anything but reasonable and impersonal.
Women are affected by lunar tides only once a month, after all. Men have raging hormones every day, as we noticed when Dick Cheney rampaged around the globe like Godzilla.
When women rule the world, men will want to avoid riling them.
Dowd goes on to call men “blubbering” and “vamping” as a result of their hormonal shifts, shames them for emotional responses, calls them “dizzy” and “sulky” and issues a vague threat that they had best not piss women off.
Does she know that she has written satire? Dizzy, sulky, catty, weepy, blubbering? Hmmm. Sounds a lot like Rebecca Watson or Adria Richards or any one of the many other strong, independent women who can’t hack a dick joke uttered within twenty miles of their fragile selves.
Differential sentencing in cases of infanticide reveals the deep flaws in some of the central claims of feminism. First, there is no patriarchy. Women retain iron-clad control over children as property and have the sole right to choose which humans live and which ones die. Post-natal abortion exists, at the more or less sole discretion of women.
Rich white women, of course. Women of color, and poor women are thrown under the bus. When it comes to choking the life out of the newly born, indeed #solidarityisforwhitewomen. Why any woman of color would ever align herself with a movement that considers her worthy of doing all the shit work white women are too precious to do, and simultaneously denies her any of the traditional female powers and privileges is beyond my comprehension.
Women are subject to gross hormonal instabilities which renders them unaccountable for the harshest of crimes, including murder. Indeed, in Canada and the United Kingdom, women’s reduced culpability for slaughtering the newly born is enshrined in law.
A female person commits infanticide when by a wilful act or omission she causes the death of her newly-born child, if at the time of the act or omission she is not fully recovered from the effects of giving birth to the child and by reason thereof or of the effect of lactation consequent on the birth of the child her mind is then disturbed.
Every female person who commits infanticide is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.
You will of course note that only female persons can be charged with infanticide and only female persons are to receive not more than five years. Male persons cannot, by definition, commit infanticide in Canada.
They commit murder and face the possibility of life imprisonment.
Let’s accept that as fair, reasonable, intelligent, compassionate and entirely appropriate. Women who murder infants are not entirely liable for their conduct as a consequence of biological circumstance.
Why then should we have any women in positions of responsibility? If they cannot be held accountable for abdicating that responsibility based on hormonal fluctuations AKA the simple fact of being a woman, why would we ever entrust them with decision-making powers that have the potential to cause serious harm?
How can you argue both sides?
Women should be given special treatment in courts of law for the most heinous of crimes, while men face execution for the same crimes because women are biologically different from men and that serves as justification for leniency.
There are no relevant biological distinctions to be made between men and women and women deserve the right to hold positions of authority and responsibility in equal measure to men.
Okay, which is it?
Ha ha! Just kidding. We know the answer to that question.
The issue of infanticide is extremely revealing: the death of a child is always a tragedy. Is it always a crime? In our current climate, it’s only a crime when caused by a man. He has unlawfully destroyed a woman’s property.
And that is the issue that requires addressing. Enshrining children as persons under the law that belong equally to their mother and father is ground zero in the battle for equality between men and women. You won’t find feminists arguing for that kind of equality.
You’ll need the MHRM for that.
These men ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.
Lots of love,