When parents kill.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 12 2002 6:00 PM

When Parents Kill

Why fathers do it. Why mothers do it.

(Continued from Page 1)

The Murders
Perhaps more revealing than the differences in why they kill their offspring are the differences between how fathers and mothers do so. For one thing, parental murderers tend to be highly physical. According to a 1988 survey done by the U.S. Justice Department, while 61 percent of all murder defendants used a gun in 1988, only 20 percent of the parents who killed their children used one. Children were drowned and shaken, beaten, poisoned, stabbed, and suffocated. These methods betray a certain "craziness" in both genders—they betray an intense passion and a lack of planning. But a study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows that fathers are far more violent. And mothers frequently dispose of the corpses in what researchers call a "womblike" fashion. Bodies are swaddled, submerged in water, or wrapped in plastic. Moreover, the NCMEC study showed that while the victims of maternal killings are almost always found either in or close to the home, fathers will, on average, dispose of the bodies hundreds of miles away. All these behaviors suggest that women associate these murders with themselves, their homes, and their bodies

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None of the arguments here assumes that there is no such thing as postpartum depression or, in rarer cases, postpartum psychosis—a deep break from reality that affects less than one in 500 new mothers. Andrea Yates is actually a good example of someone who was overdetermined to experience some kind of psychotic break that would end tragically. But Yates is only one of hundreds of mothers who kill every year, and while complete psychotic breaks explain why some of this homicidal rage and violence is turned upon one's own children, it doesn't account for either the staggering numbers of maternal homicides or for society's leniency toward women in these cases. The property theory does provide these answers. Women still believe that they have sole dominion over so little property that arson and armed robbery and rape make no intuitive sense to them. But the destruction and control of something deemed to be a woman's sole property sends a powerful message about who's really in charge, and this message hasn't changed since the time of Jason and Medea.

It would, of course, help if we could stop thinking of children as anyone's property. It does nothing to advance the feminist cause to simply assume that all mothers who kill their children must necessarily be crazy. It will do a good deal to advance the cause of children's rights if we begin to consider them as legal entities in and of themselves.

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