Murderous Madonna: Femininity, Violence, and the Myth of Postpartum Mental Disorder in Cases of Maternal Infanticide and Filicide

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
  I. POSTPARTUM PSYCHOSIS AND CULTURAL VALUES
     CONCERNING FEMININITY
     A. Feminist Legal Theory and Mothers Who Kill
     B. The Insanity Defense and Female Offenders
     C. Dangerous Impact of the Denial of Female
        Violence on the Justice System
     D. Issues of Femininity and Violence in Yates's Trials
     E. The Institutionalization of Female Passivity and
        Nonviolence in American Law
 II. ARGUMENT AGAINST THE ENACTMENT OF AN  AMERICAN INFANTICIDE ACT
     A. Faulty Presumption that All Maternal Killings
        Result from the Effects of Childbirth
     B. Misplaced Belief that Women Should Be
        Treated Lightly for Violent Crimes
III. ARGUMENT AGAINST THE ADOPTION OF A
     GENDER-SPECIFIC INSANITY STANDARD
     A. Overview of Existing Insanity Standards
     B. Effectiveness of the Current Gender-Neutral
        Standard
     C. Gender-Specific Standards Promote Dangerous
        Leniency Toward Female Defendants,
        Especially Mothers
     D. Gender-Specific Standards Embrace and Perpetuate
        False Ideas About Women and Violence
CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

"The sweetest sounds to mortals given Are heard in Mother, Home, and Heaven."

--William Goldsmith Brown

On June 27, 2001, Rusty Yates gently placed baby blankets inside the coffins that held each of his five lifeless children. (1) Just days earlier, his wife, Andrea Yates, had drowned all of their children in a bathtub in the family's suburban Texas home. (2) Andrea Yates has since become the modern day poster child for maternal killings, which are commonly classified as either infanticide (the killing of an infant) or filicide (the killing of a child over the age of one). (3) Yates's acts, and the legal saga (4) that followed, spawned extensive media coverage, (5) popular discussion, and even an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. (6) By the time police led Yates from her home that day, she had already become "'the Medea' of Houston ... the stuff of which myths were made." (7) Although few cases of infanticide and filicide receive the attention that Yates's did, such acts occur with great frequency in the United States and abroad. (8) Every day, some women choose to stab, drown, burn, beat, smother, or strangle the infants and children who depend upon them for survival. (9) Such actions fly in the face of traditional conceptions of motherhood, yet women who kill their children receive consistently light penalties for their crimes. (10)

Maternal killings are treated as a lesser offense than general homicide in the United States and are trivialized to an even greater extent in places like England and Canada, where Infanticide Acts automatically mitigate sanctions for mothers who kill. (11) The same good-natured jurisprudence does not extend to homicidal fathers. When men murder their children, they receive far harsher penalties than their female counterparts. (12) Cases involving maternal infanticide and filicide reveal a dangerous leniency toward female defendants and a general desire to explain away female aggression.

In the wake of Yates's case, the use of postpartum psychosis as a legal defense in cases of maternal infanticide and filicide has received considerable attention. Postpartum psychosis refers to a rare and serious mental disorder thought to occur after childbirth in some women. (13) Since the 1980s, American courts have allowed women suffering from the disorder to raise the insanity defense. Postpartum psychosis played a pivotal role in Yates's case, as defense attorneys argued that the disorder caused Yates to kill her children. (14) The jury ultimately agreed, and Yates received a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. (15) A number of other mothers have been found not guilty on similar grounds. (16)

Despite the rare nature of postpartum psychosis, recent discussion tends erroneously to conflate all maternal killings with the disorder. …