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Rallying Around a Baby-Killer

The Houston Area chapter of the National Organization for Women (HANOW), through its online voice, FEMNET, is asking people to send "cards or notes of caring " to child-killing mother Andrea Pia Yates in her prison cell. The group says she was driven to murder by postpartum depression.

Funny, but I don't recall FEMNET asking that "notes of caring" be sent to the funeral of her children.

HANOW, along with its national cohort, NOW, is staking a claim on postpartum depression, which it calls "fairly common." In doing so, NOW is demonizing the disorder and doing a disservice to women who suffer from it.

A jumbled resolution passed at NOW's recent national conference called for opposition to the death penalty, increased funding for medical research on the condition, and for "the law enforcement community" to view postpartum behavior in full context. Patricia Ireland, then head of NOW, 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. In this context, Yates is being cast as a political martyr, with some success.

On NBC's The Today Show, host Katie Couric made a plea on behalf of Yates' defense fund after running interviews with her mother and brother. On ABC's Good Morning America, Rosie O'Donnell proclaimed her "overwhelming empathy" for Yates. And in a trend-setting article in Newsweek, 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 much that even the normally commonsensical Abigail Trafford confessed to a "kind of empathy" for the murdering mom in a recent Washington Post column.

No slouch when it comes to recognizing an easy bandwagon, NOW is ringing the alarm bell about postpartum depression, which it believes 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.

NOW is, however, using the term "postpartum depression" in a misleading manner. Clinically, the term includes conditions like the "blues" — the weeping and mood swings — that frequently follow childbirth and can last for several weeks. But it can be a much more serious and persistent disorder.

Textbooks characterize 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. Other estimates are higher, especially for the transitory and less severe "baby blues."

These figures are disturbingly high. And they explain the flood of e-mail 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.

Instead of postpartum depression, NOW should be zeroing in on 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 one-tenth of one percent. If accurate, this means that 99.9 percent of new mothers do not experience a mental breakdown in which reality dissolves, one in which mothers may obey delusions that command them to kill their children.

NOW's "defense" of non-working women who suffer from postpartum depression is actually a stigmatization 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 the Houston chapter of NOW 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 wants 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.

McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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