The National Organization for Women is retreating from its support of accused child killer Andrea P. Yates, claiming it is only trying to ensure that the Yates tragedy sparks a long-overdue discussion of mental illness and the death penalty.
In a statement released Thursday, NOW president Kim Gandy blamed the media for misinterpreting its position and said the organization had not established a legal defense fund for Yates – the Texas mother accused of drowning her five children – does not excuse her crime and was not raising money for her.
Gandy said that NOW was speaking out on the Yates case to "call attention to the need for better response by the medical community, law enforcement and the judiciary to the problem of postpartum depression and psychosis."
The Houston-area NOW chapter's actions in support of Yates – from fundraising for her legal defense to planning a candlelight vigil for next week outside the Texas jail where Yates is incarcerated in the psychiatric ward – have been controversial and drawn some harsh criticism to the national organization.
In fact, Thursday's statement was issued just as demonstrators were assembling for a protest outside the organization's national headquarters in Washington.
"It's wrong to kill your children and use your hormones as an excuse," Audrey Mullen, a spokesperson for the Independent Women's Action Project, the group that sponsored the demonstration, told the Washington Times during the rally.
In Thursday's statement, Gandy defended the Houston chapter by saying it had only "directed concerned people to a fund already set up by Yates' lawyers," but made clear that NOW's interest in the case sits squarely with the larger issues it poses: the death penalty being applied to mentally ill defendants, and the failure of the medical and judicial system to prevent what emerging evidence suggests was a totally avoidable tragedy.
"Texas' desire to put to death a person who may be mentally ill should shock the nation's conscience," Gandy said.
Yates, a 37-year-old mother of five, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to drowning to death her five children — Noah, 7, John, 5, Paul, 3, Luke, 2, and Mary, 6-months — in the bathtub of her Clear Lake, Texas home June 20. She is facing the death penalty on capital murder charges in the deaths of three of the children.
A stay-at-home, home-schooling mother with a long, disturbing history of severe postpartum depression and the more serious condition of postpartum psychosis, Yates has proven to be an easy poster child for a broad spectrum of issues and causes — the death penalty, mental illness, religious attitudes toward birth control, the pressures of motherhood and even the abortion debate.
Yates lawyers are attempting to have their client declared incompetent to even stand trial for her crimes. With the competency hearing set for Sept. 12, troubling details of Yates mental history and marriage have begun to emerge.
Court papers filed this weekend portray a terribly disturbed woman who was cracking under the pressure of home schooling her large family.
According to the papers, Yates' mental problems dated back seven years to the birth of her first child, after which she reportedly began hearing voices that were telling her to get a knife and hurt people. The papers document at least one suicide attempt, during which Yates attempted to slit her own throat.
Two months before she drowned her children, Yates had filled the bathtub with water, refused to tell her husband why and was admitted to a mental hospital. Two weeks before the drownings, Yates' psychiatrist reportedly took her off the drug Haldol, which had alleviated her depression before.
According to psychologists' notes included in the court filings, Russel Yates had been pressuring his wife to come home from the hospital and get off her medication so that they could have more children.
One therapist who treated Yates noted that "patient and husband plan to have as many babies as nature will allow. This will surely guarantee further psychosis and depression."
Yates' mother and brother have reported that Yates' mental condition has shown remarkable improvement since she has received proper psychiatric treatment and medication in jail — a fact that for many of her supporters illustrates the desperation of her home life.
"We are asking questions that need to be asked," Gandy said in Thursday's statement. Among those questions, she said, were why Yates was released from the hospital in such a depressed state, why she was not given help with her children after leaving the hospital, whether her doctors had adequately informed her family about the dangers of her condition, and why she was not receiving the proper medical care for her condition.
"Most importantly, why aren't the Texas authorities asking these questions?" Gandy asked in the statement.
But many others — including many feminists and women's groups — have been outraged and offended that groups like NOW would in any way excuse the murder of five children under any circumstances.
"I don't think we should make excuses for murder," Bishop Imagene Stewart of the African American Women's Clergy Association said during Thursday's demonstration. "If we let her get away with this, other women — who are mad at their husbands — will do it too, and just plead insanity."
Russel Yates, who has expressed his support for his wife, has obtained his own legal counsel and is refuting the claims his wife's attorneys have made in the court papers.
Postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis are legitimate, established medical conditions that have in some form been recognized by physicians for centuries. Postpartum depression affects between 10-15 percent of new mothers. Postpartum psychosis, the more serious condition Yates was believed to be suffering from, affects about 1 in 1,000 women.