The American Feminist

The American Feminist, Fall 1997

Desperate Young Women Kill Their Newborn Babies: Fighting a Culture of Violence

"A Bronx woman has been charged with murdering her newborn son, who was found wrapped in a plastic bag and stuffed behind a toilet in her house, police said yesterday."

- Newsday, 6/23/97
"She arrived at the prom in New Jersey last Friday night in a loose-fitting black dress...and made a beeline for the bathroom.... But the girl had apparently told no one - not even her boyfriend - that her loose-fitting dress hid her pregnancy and that in the bathroom she had given birth to a baby boy, wrapped him in a plastic bag and disposed of him in the trash."

- The Washington Post, 6/10/97
"The body of a 5- to 6-pound infant girl was found by police inside a canvas tote bag tucked into a crawl space at the Mukilteo home of a Holy Cross student. Authorities were alerted by a Child Protective Services caseworker after the student had consulted an Edmonds doctor - an estimated 24 hours after the birth - because of bleeding."

- The Seattle Times, 6/5/97

The stories are horrific. Teen girls accused of murdering their babies only minutes after they are born. Newborns who were never given names, never held or rocked - instead suffocated and abandoned moments after taking their first breath.

These stories, and many others, have left communities, friends, and especially families in a state of shock. It is impossible to know what these girls were thinking, what could have driven them to such a desperate act. It is equally difficult to comprehend how the girls were able to conceal their pregnancies from everyone - even their families and partners - right up to the day they gave birth. One mother said she had seen her teenage daughter naked the night before she gave birth and had not noticed anything remarkable about the girl's figure.

"It's pretty amazing how good some teenagers are at hiding the fact that they are pregnant," said Dr. Peter Harris, medical director for mental health services at Jersey Shore Medical Center. "Women will wear baggy clothes or starve themselves to limit their weight gain. In their denial, they say to themselves, 'If I don't have a great big belly, I won't be pregnant.'" According to Harris, young women will also disguise their morning sickness and go to great lengths to cover up other indications that might indicate that they were pregnant.

No one knows why these young women conceal their pregnancies and disavow the life inside them. Psychologists point to feelings of denial, fear, confusion, and isolation. To a young woman in denial, "This is a foreign body going through her, not a baby, and the bonding never occurs," said Dr. Phillip Resnick, a Case Western Reserve professor of psychiatry who coined the term neonaticide. "She doesn't think of it as her child but as an object to get rid of."

The young woman may find herself giving birth in a college dormitory, at her parents' home, or in a department store bathroom. She "gets rid of" her newborn baby by stuffing tissues down the baby's throat, strangling her, or drowning her in the toilet. The tiny body is thrown into a trash compactor, a dumpster, stashed away in a dresser drawer, or even tossed out of a window.

Approximately 250 cases of neonaticide are reported to the Department of Justice each year, but it is impossible to know the real number of newborns killed by their parents. Some bodies are never found. Perhaps, in the most fortunate of cases, a newborn who was left by her mother to die is discovered and given a second chance at life.

There is much ambivalence about what to do with young mothers accused of murdering their newborn babies. While some argue that such an incomprehensible act calls for the harshest of punishments under the law, others believe that these young women should receive compassion and help. Since 1922, England has had an infanticide law providing that mothers who kill babies up to a year old should face a lesser charge of manslaughter, rather than be charged with murder. These women are given psychiatric treatment and rarely serve prison terms.

U.S. law does not contain provisions to allow for more lenient penalties in cases of neonaticide. Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, who are accused of killing their newborn son, could face the death penalty if they are found guilty of first-degree murder. Yet prosecutors charged a New York college woman who killed her newborn with manslaughter rather than murder. A jury found her guilty of criminally negligent homicide, an even lesser charge, and sentenced her to one to four years in prison.

The grotesque and unbelievable nature of these acts attests to the desperation these girls are experiencing. They feel isolated; they do not know where to turn. It is them against the world. But something can be done and must be done to help these young women.

To reach these at-risk teens, adults parents, teachers, counselors must actively encourage the discussion of issues such as teen pregnancy and sexuality, and they must be willing to confront young women who they suspect are pregnant. "In these infanticide cases, like teen suicides, they say nobody knew," says Robert Butterworth, a child trauma psychologist in Los Angeles. "But like in suicide, someone - usually a close friend - generally knew, but there is this code or ethic that you can't go to adults."

Psychologists advocate open communication about sexuality between parents and their children. Young women need to know that no topics are off limits; they need to know that they can turn to adults and not live in fear of the consequences; and they need to be made aware of the resources that are available to help them during a crisis pregnancy.

"Now, more than ever, young women across the country need to hear the message of FFL's College Outreach Program," said FFL Executive Director Serrin Foster. "We can no longer tolerate a world without compassion for young mothers and their children. We must counteract the message that 25 years of abortion has ingrained into society - a message that actively promotes women turning against their own children, a message that an unplanned pregnancy is hopeless, a message that women must choose between their life plans and their children."

"Let woman assert herself in all her native purity, dignity, and strength, and end this wholesale suffering and murder of helpless children. With centuries of degradation, we have so little of true womanhood, that the world has but the faintest glimmering of what a woman is or should be."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Revolution 1(4):57-59, January 29, 1868

Kerri-Ann Kiniorski, Editor, The American Feminist
Reprinted from The American Feminist, Fall 1997
© 2004 Feminists for Life