For a woman to destroy the fruit of her womb would seem like an ultimate violation of the natural order. But every year, hundreds of women commit neonaticide: they kill their newborns or just let them die. Most neonaticides remain undiscovered , but every once in a while a janitor follows a trail of blood to a tiny body in a trash bin, or a woman faints and doctors find the remains of a placenta inside of her. The day you are born is the day you are most likely to be the victim of homicide.
This cheerless statistic holds true whether you live in South Africa or any other part of the world. The perpetrator will almost certainly be your mother. Research has shown that she will most likely be under 25, unmarried, still living at home or in poor circumstances, either still at school or unemployed, emotionally immature and astonishingly secretive. She has carried you to full term without telling a soul of your existence. And somehow the parents with whom she resides never suspect she is with child. Until of course it becomes obvious. Now that you are born, it’s not depression or psychosis that moves her to murder you.
Mental illness rarely plays a part in this sort of killing. Nor is she overwhelmed by the feeling that life is simply too harsh for such a defenseless little creature for whom she cares a great deal. There is rarely great violence in the manner that she kills you, her new born child. She may simply abandon you to the elements. The only intense feeling she has is the desire to see you gone. She may even deny that you exist at all. This is the profile of neonaticide, the murder of a newborn in its first 24 hours of life, and a form of infanticide peculiar to industrialized countries.
Two cases have riveted the public recently. Last November, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, 18 year old college sweethearts, delivered their baby in a motel room and according to prosecutors, killed him and left his body in a dumpster. They will go on trial for murder next year and, if convicted, could be sentenced to death. In June, another 18 year old, Melissa Drexler, arrived at her high school prom, locked herself in a bathroom stall, gave birth to a boy and left him dead in a garbage can. Everyone knows what happened next; she touched herself up and returned to the dance floor.
In September a grand jury indicted her for murder. How could they do it? Nothing melts the heart like a helpless baby. Even a biologist’s cold calculations tell us that nurturing an offspring that carries our genes is the whole point of our existence. Neonaticide, many think, could be only a product of pathology. The psychiatrists uncover childhood trauma. The defense lawyers argue temporary psychosis. The experts blame a throwaway society, permissive sex education and, of course, rock lyrics. But its hard to maintain that neonaticide is an illness when we learn that it has been practiced throughout history.
And that neonaticidal women do not commonly show signs of psycopathology. Some argue that those who kill infants in the first twenty-four hours of the child’s life usually commit the act without any premeditation, acting in a state of impulsive panic and, as such, are no threat to society, making imprisonment unwarranted. Studies have shown that only 70 percent of mothers were charged with homocide and 30 percent were charged with unlawful disposal of a body. At the end of the day a human life was taken and this amounts to murder.
You cant quibble over a more serious or a less serious charge, murder is murder! 30 years behind bars is fair but parenting classes and councelling can never justify the death of an innocent baby. I firmly believe that killing a baby is an immoral act, and we often express our outrage by calling it a sickness. But normal human motives are not always moral, and neonaticide does not have to be a product of malfunctioning neural circuitry or a dysfunctional upbringing. We can try to understand what would lead a mother to kill her newborn, remembering that to understand may help prevent further cases.