The Newest Feminist Icon—a Killer Mom

The Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2001

By Sally Satel

Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children last June, is the newest feminist icon. The National Organization for Women is rallying around her. Diana Lynn-Barnes of the Center for Postpartum Health sounded the battle cry: “Women are mad as hell and they are not going to take it anymore. There’s a vast amount of compassion for Andrea Yates because . . . they can see how one could go down this road. She’s a victim of a culture that says women come last.” Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen invoked the “insidious cult of motherhood” to explain Yates’ actions.

Turning Ms. Yates into a feminist cause is the kind of gimmickry we have come to expect from groups like NOW. But turning her into a poster girl for postpartum depression risks badly misleading the very women that the organization hopes to educate.

Ms. Yates’ act was not a mere variant of maternal behavior; she was nature’s aberration. On June 20 she systematically took her children into the bathroom, held them underwater, and then placed their drowned bodies side by side on the bed. When her oldest son came upon her in the bathroom, figured out what was happening, and fled to another room, she dragged him back into the tub as well.

Last month, Yates’ lawyer entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and he appears to have a good case. The details of Ms. Yates psychiatric history — previous suicide attempts, deep depressions subsequent to earlier births, hospitalizations, treatment with the anti-psychotic medication Haldol — strongly suggests that her behavior was the product of delusion, of postpartum psychosis to be more precise. Prosecutors, contending that she still knew right from wrong and hence was not legally insane, plan to seek the death penalty.

In response, the Houston chapter of NOW has formed the Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition. Part of its mission is to help collect money for a legal defense fund setup by her lawyers. Tonight, on the eve of a hearing that will determine her mental fitness to stand trial, the Houston chapter of NOW will sponsor a candlelight vigil. The next day, the group will hold an educational forum on postpartum mental illness. One hopes the activists employ uncharacteristic subtlety in this effort because, thus far, sufficient care has not been taken to distinguish between the various kinds of postpartum mental conditions.

The term postpartum depression refers to a substantial depression that occurs in 10% to 15% of all new mothers. It is marked by feelings of hopelessness, despair, diminished interest, and an inability to experience pleasure. Some may fear harming the infant (though not actually do so) or feel guilty about being bad or undeserving mothers. “Postpartum depression” is used loosely to encompass everything from the so-called baby blues — a transitory period of sadness, irritability, and anxiety that arrives within a week of childbirth and affects over half of all women — to postpartum psychosis, which afflicts about 1 in 1000.

When psychotic, the mother may think the baby is defective or evil, that it must be destroyed to save all of humanity, or she may “hear” God telling her to kill it. Or she may think she’s saving the baby by delivering it from this hell-on-earth to heaven. Ms. Yates, in fact, told police that her children were “hopelessly damaged,” but it’s likely that more florid delusions beset her. Only a handful go on to kill their babies.

What’s more, women at the highest risk for postpartum psychosis are those who have already had a psychotic episode following the birth of a child, have a history of manic-depressive illness, or whose mother or sisters experienced postpartum psychosis. It is not true, as a writer in Salon said about Ms. Yates, that “she could have been me. Or you. Or your wife.”

Not surprisingly, some women have already started to panic. Within a week of the drownings, the Houston Chronicle reported, four local women fearing they would be the next Ms. Yates called child protective services asking that their babies be taken away. On the flip side, there is concern that some distraught new moms may be reluctant to ask for help, fearing that they will be suspected of harboring desires to kill their children, says Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor and obstetrician with the Yale School of Medicine.

From a legal standpoint, the Yates case transcends gender. Her culpability will turn on whether she was psychotic and as a result did not know right from wrong when she killed her children. Yet NOW and others seem to be covetously eyeing legal accommodations that roughly 30 other countries have made for new mothers who kill their children within a year of giving birth.

England, Canada and Australia, for example, have special infanticide statutes that rule out murder charges against new mothers and typically impose sentences of probation and counseling. The maximum charge the woman can face is manslaughter. Some nations’ laws cover a woman who killed any of her children, while others only cover the killing of a newborn. “In the first year after birth,” explains DePaul Law School professor Michelle Oberman, “the laws say the balance of the mother’s mind has been altered.”

On one level, this has some appeal, especially for people like me who do not believe in executing a person who committed her crime while psychotic. But in the end a gender-specific law is a bad idea. We have an insanity defense and it is applied equally to women and men who commit horrific acts while deranged. If we are to modify laws we must do it in gender-blind fashion. Andrea Yates is not a symbol of motherhood under duress nor of the embattled state of the American woman. To portray her as such is a cynical move that trivializes a serious mental illness and misinforms women about their risk of committing one of humanity’s most unspeakable acts.