Crime or Tragedy? Murder & Suicide at Villanova

Article excerpt

On January 20, 2005, Villanova University dedicated a memorial to the late Professor Mine Ener, director of the university's Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. The last six months of Mine's life, and the circumstances of her death, had shaken the campus. The year after she was married, Mine gave birth to a daughter, Raya Donagi, who suffered from Down syndrome and associated medical complications. As time went on, Raya's condition did not improve and Mine sank more deeply into postpartum depression. By the time Raya was six months old, Mine appeared to be gripped by postpartum psychosis. On the morning of August 4, 2003, she killed Raya, later telling police that she could not bear for the baby to continue in such suffering. A few weeks later, Mine Ener took her own life.

Shocked and heartbroken, the Villanova community nonetheless refused to reduce the meaning of Mine's life to the despair, psychosis, and violence that plagued her last days. After much thought, a committee decided to create a small oasis in the library that reflected Mine's love of Middle Eastern hospitality and culture. A plaque on the wall read, "In memory of Mine Ener: scholar, teacher, mentor, friend." It also noted her dates of service at Villanova (1996-2003).

The memorial was a grieving community's act of hope, and its prayer for some peace. It was not a political act. Yet it was immediately brandished as a weapon in the culture wars. A few prolife students protested that the memorial was inconsistent with church teaching on the sanctity of life. Television personality Bill O'Reilly castigated the university for "honoring" a baby killer, as did members of the blogosphere. Villanova quickly capitulated to the pressure, announcing on January 31 that the plaque would be removed, and that Mine would be memorialized by a symposium on postpartum depression and psychosis.

What, exactly, is going on here? On one level, the controversy seems unwarranted. First, according to traditional Catholic teaching, it is highly unlikely that Mine Ener was morally culpable for killing either her baby or herself. Despite her best efforts to seek treatment, her postpartum psychosis deprived Mine of the minimum conditions of reason and free will necessary for someone to be morally responsible for such acts. Morally speaking, she was not a "killer." Second, the plaque created little danger of "scandal"--traditionally understood to mean fostering the misapprehension that a morally illicit act is permissible. Unlike abortion, infanticide is not only illegal, it is vigorously prosecuted. There was absolutely no suggestion that baby Raya's Down syndrome meant that her life was counted less seriously by the relevant authorities. Third, the memorial was clearly designed not to "honor" Mine's tragic acts but to remind people of the overall meaning of her life. …