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A Modern Medea…


Searching around infant mortality figures recently I came upon the following conundrum.

It appeared that, in the United States, Canada and Australia, children are considerably more likely to die at the hands of their mothers than from any male intervention.

This was not the case in the figures for the UK. Phew. So, even if there are problems elsewhere in the world, shouldn’t we all breathe a sigh of relief because  British children are safe from murderous mothers?

Well, no. The age-old problem of reporting errors associated with legal definitions comes in here. In the UK, we do not count infanticide in the same legal category as homicide, apparently. In the US, Canada and Australia, they do and this accounts for the discrepancy.

The distribution of parentally caused child mortality is reasonably consistent across the major western countries, but it is not uniform. It shows by far and away the the highest rates are for infants aged less than one year old.

We hear a lot about parents killing their teenage children – as a result of mental crises, family breakdown and so on. but an infant boy is more than fifteen times as likely to be killed by a parent than is a teenager. But, we hear far, far less about these deaths caused to very young children. Why is that?

Is it because infanticide is not regarded as part of the topography of murder in Britain but rather than as an unfortunate side effect of a postpartum hormonal imbalance?

Every year, there are more than 50 serious case reviews conducted by social services, following the death of a child at the hands of their parents, usually their mothers.

Each time that one is taken up in the media, there is a sensational sense of surprise in the reporting. Is it not time that we recognised the issue as it is: that women can and often are a substantial risk to their children, especially when they are very young…? And that we need to clarify how we understand the relationship between psychopathology and criminality.

I don’t think anyone today would argue that women who kill their babies should be treated any differently from fathers in a similar position. No-one after all, kills their child without suffering from a mental illness. Does this mean that we should treat all parents who kill as patients first and offenders second?

Looking at the literature, it seems to me that the image of the transgressive, offending, violent male is one that society has adapted to quite comfortably. We have systems which punish, restrict and deprive those who fall into this category.

What we tend to ignore are the mothers who also sit squarely in the same box. The question is what do we want to do about them?

Canadian Children’s Rights Council

From → Children, Health, Research

  1. Great you bring this up! I was not aware how big this problem is – indeed, I thought it was exeedingly rare.

    But can we really be sure that all the mothers suffer from mental illness? I am much more convinced that they have broken apart from too much stress, being left utterly alone and unprepared with the new infant. Here in the U.S., we have no services that support young mothers/families. The Department of Social Services usually intervenes only when there is a problem.

    I remember that after my daughter was born in Germany, I had several visitors in the next few days to give me at least a minimum of instruction, follow-up and emotional support: The midwife, a nurse, a social worker are made sure I had found into the role of a new mother. With my son, born later here, no such support happened.

    Writing from Tehran today, I thank you for this article!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • I agree, Alexa. This is, thank goodness, very rare.
      I have no knowledge of the US systems, but I can imagine that the public health safety net in Europe probably does tend to get more advisors and professionals into the home to support new and more vulnerable mums.
      Increasingly these resources are having to be pared back and targeted on those thought to be most at risk (tick-off the risk factors: single, multiple partner, substance etc) which has a raft of ethical implications in itself.
      As for mental health. I think there is some evidence (but I can’t remember the book I want to quote…!) for the stresses of pregnancy, childbirth etc – in certain cases – making actual a latent susceptibility to mental illness as well as the there being – in the majority of cases – a breakdown in the normal coping mechanisms under a burden of too much stress.
      I have worked with young mums who have been in reasonably good shape psychologically but could easily have done harm to their children, given the lack of support that existed in their social networks.
      In a sense that is sometimes the problem: what are Mum’s support mechanisms when the district nurse and the health visitor have gone home for the night?

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