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Society’s shame

Filicide alleviates unwanted child, committment

UP Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Updated: Thursday, February 23, 2012 15:02


UP illustration by William Jones

No parent should have to bury a child. Outliving one's offspring is viewed as unnatural. It defies the common laws of nature.

But some parents intentionally harm their children, killing them in extreme cases. They take the baby they decided not to abort, the toddler they didn't give to adoption and the teenager they haven't kicked out of the house, and decide death is the best alternative.
Josh Powell, who was a suspect in the disappearance of his wife, killed himself and his two sons, ages 7 and 5 years, by rigging his Washington home as a bomb on Feb. 5. According to a report on MSNBC, Powell's children had begun to "verbalize more" about their missing mother, suggesting that she was in the trunk of their father's car on the night she disappeared in 2009.
Rachelle Grimmer, a Texas mother who was desperate over being denied food stamps, shot her two children and then committed suicide after a seven-hour standoff with SWAT teams at a state welfare office on Dec. 7.
Perhaps the most famous case of filicide, a parent killing their child, is that of Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Her murder conviction was later overturned, and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
"A lot of it, in my experience, is a lack of connection," J.T. Seaman, Lamar University adjunct instructor of psychology, said. "If you don't have any emotions and you don't feel connected to someone, it's easy to kill them.
"I know that in some cases they honestly think that they're protecting who they kill. If you read the testimony for the (Yates) case, I think she honestly thought she was taking care of those kids. She felt she was protecting those children."
In "Child murder by mothers: patterns and prevention," psychiatrists Phillip Resnick, who testified in Yates's defense, and Susan Hatters identify five major circumstances of filicide — altruistic, acutely psychotic, fatal maltreatment, unwanted child, and spouse revenge.
The fact that filicide happens enough that it has five categories is alarming. Even having such terminology is disturbing. But it gets worse.
Infanticide — killing a human infant — has a sub-section: neonaticide — a killing within 24 hours of a baby's birth, most commonly done by the mother. Infanticide of a baby more than one day old is more commonly by the father.
"You don't know what's going on in people's minds," Seaman said. "You can't always guess what their logic is. From the outside world, it may be completely irrational. But you can almost be assured that at the time they did it, it made sense to them."
In the United States, you are 10 times more likely to be murdered on the day you are born than at any other time during your life, according to a study released by the Centers of Disease Control in 2002.
Even if you make it through your first day, you still risk a better chance of being murdered during your first year of life than in any other year of childhood, the CDC study states.
"Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors," according to "Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.
"The major difference between the nature of infanticide (today), when compared to the rest of recorded history, however, is due to the impact of one modern medical advancement — the widespread availability of safe and legal means of abortion."
The Web site adds that the ability to easily terminate a pregnancy has had a profound effect on the prevalence of infanticide, with murder rates dropping.
"The human species has killed almost 10 to 15 percent of all children born," states. "The majority of these murders have been associated with reasons of necessity, at least in the minds of the infanticide parents, or with untoward reactions against an unwanted birth. With little ability to abort an unwanted pregnancy safely, troubled parents have had little choice but to wait until full-term delivery before disposing of the conception."
Taking the abortion issue out of the equation, there is a moral issue at hand when dealing with filicide and infanticide — at what point does a human being become a person?
"The right to life must come, the moral philosophers say, from morally significant traits that we humans happen to possess," a 1997 New York Times article states. "One such trait is having a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people. Other traits include an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death and to express the choice not to die. And there's the rub — our immature neonates don't possess these traits any more than mice do."
Because philosophers have argued that neonates are not people, the punishment for killing an infant is reduced.
"Infanticide laws often reduce the penalty for mothers who kill their children up to one year of age," Resnick and Hatters' article states. "Women convicted of infanticide often receive probation and referral to mental health treatment rather than incarceration."
Parenting is hard work. As the new mother of a three-month-old, I know. It takes effort, time and commitment to the new person in your life. Newborns scream. They fuss. They cry, sometimes for no other reason than to work their vocal chords.
However, it is also a joyful experience. Each day, infants learn something new — how to smile, how to laugh, how to raise their eyebrows, how to roll over, how to make a vast range of facial expressions and movements. They are developing their personalities and slowly maturing into who they will become as individuals.
But they can't develop if their life is cut short by an irresponsible, unwilling or unfit parent. 
The United States has safe haven laws that allow parents to drop their babies off at police stations and hospitals if they feel they cannot take care of their children. And there are other options for unplanned pregnancies. 
If parents decide to try to raise a child but find it overwhelming, adoption can provide a safer, more healthy home elsewhere, and foster care is always an option. An unwanted burden for one can become a happy family addition for another.
The old saying states that a society is judged based on how it treats its weakest members. The fact that filicide and infanticide occur as often as they do, shames us as a society. Parenting is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. 
There are no do-overs when it comes to raising children. If you think you can't handle the commitment, then don't. But don't wait until the last viable option in your mind is murder. Weigh your options beforehand, and make the best decision for your child.

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