The Psychology of Infanticide

Science, technology, and life.
June 18 2009 9:11 AM

The Psychology of Infanticide

How could anyone kill her own newborn child?

If you talk to pregnant women or read accounts of what they say to friends and counselors, you'll notice a pattern. Those who are happy to be pregnant and expect to give birth describe what they're carrying as a baby. Those who don't want to be pregnant and are seeking or contemplating abortion avoid that word. Given the same thing at the same stage of development, we see what we want to see: a child if we want a child, an unformed embryo if we don't.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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I like to think this subjective mentality is confined to the pre-viable fetus or at least to pregnancy. But what if it isn't? What if, to some people, it extends to newborns?

Infanticide is rare but not as rare as you might think. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics , the number of infanticides in this country, defined as homicides of anyone under age 5, has ranged between 500 and 800 per year for the last three decades. Of these cases, about 40 percent involve children under the age of 1. If you have the stomach to read about such tragedies, here are articles about some of them: 2006 cases in Georgia , South Dakota , and New York ; two more New York cases in 2007 ; and a 2008 case in Texas . Serial infanticides are the most disturbing. Here's an alleged 2005 case in California , a 2007 case in Texas , and a 2008 case in Germany .

The latest horror story is unfolding in France. Edward Cody of the Washington Post reports :

Véronique Courjault, by her own admission, smothered the two babies after giving birth to them secretly in Seoul, the first in 2002 and the second in 2003. She also has acknowledged killing a newborn and burning the body in her garden after a first secret pregnancy in 1999 ... [A]s the presiding judge pressed for an explanation—the court will have to decide whether she knew what she was doing—she offered only vague clues as to what was going through her mind at the time. "What I did is so monstrous, without explanation," she responded, according to reports from the courtroom. "For me, those children did not have a real existence." Asked how she could carry the children for nine months and still feel they had no existence, she said, "I knew it, and then I no longer knew it."

This is the danger of denying that what you're carrying is a developing baby. Is your denial based on the undeveloped state of your pregnancy or on a determined refusal to see what you don't want to see? If it's the former, then at some point, if you continue the pregnancy, you'll start to see a baby. But if it's the latter, you might not. Your denial might extend all the way to birth or even beyond it.

That's one reason why, if you're unhappily pregnant, you should look at an ultrasound of what you're carrying. That goes for the potential father, too. Nobody can make you look, nobody should make you look, and you certainly should ignore bogus "information" scripts like the one concocted by a bunch of U.S. senators two years ago. But there's nothing bogus about an ultrasound. It will make you face what's growing inside you and the urgency of deciding whether to terminate it, even if termination is still the right choice. Otherwise, you risk sliding into the mentality of denial. And there's no telling where that ends.