Why Are French Women Killing Their Babies?

The question is as horrifying as it is important to ask: Why are a rising number of French women killing their newborn babies? Finding the answer has become a matter of urgency following the discovery Wednesday of eight infants allegedly smothered to death and buried by their mother in northern France. And with that case marking at least the fifth instance of multiple infanticide reported in France since 2003, it’s now become vital for the nation to seriously confront the phenomenon that appears to be behind it all: a mental condition known as pregnancy denial.

This latest case of newborn murder in France was uncovered in the northern town of Villiers-au-Tertre, after eight tiny bodies were found buried in the gardens of two separate homes. Six of the cadavers were unearthed on July 29 by police at the house of Dominique Cottrez, 45, and her husband Pierre-Marie, 47. Investigators searched their home after the current resident of a house previously owned by Dominique’s parents turned up two tiny bodies on July 24 while digging a pool in the backyard. According to the French prosecutor leading the inquiry in the town a short distance south of Lille, Dominique has admitted to hiding her pregnancies – and the killings of her babies – from her husband, who police describe as being “dumb-struck” by the revelations. Dominique was charged for the murders; Pierre-Marie has been cleared of wrongdoing and released, but could yet become the subject of investigation. (See the top 10 crime stories of 2009.)

The case in Villiers-au-Tertre is only the most recent example of a father of slain babies being apparently unaware of his wife’s pregnancies. Four other such cases since 2003 include that of VÉronique Courjault, 42, who was convicted in June 2009 of killing three of her newborns – two of whom she hid in a freezer, and which were later discovered by her husband. Just last March, CÉline Lesage, 38, was found guilty of murdering six of her babies after she hid her pregnancies from the men who had fathered them. Both were sentenced to prison terms; Courjault for eight years and Lesage for 15.

Experts explained each of those cases as resulting from pregnancy denial, an often misunderstood and minimized condition. According to Michel Delcroix, a former gynecologist who served as a court expert in the Courjault trial and others involving pregnancy issues, pregnancy denial is a quasi-schizophrenic condition in which women either don’t realize or cannot accept that they are with child – not even enough to have their unwanted babies aborted. Whether these women are afflicted by the condition before they deliver or as they’re suddenly giving birth, Delcroix explains, the psychological denial of their pregnancy is so strong that they refuse to believe it even when it confronts them as reality. (See more on pregnancy.)

“These women are so convinced pregnancy is impossible that once the child they never wanted arrives, they don’t accept it as real and get rid of it to restore order to what they believe is non-pregnant reality,” Delcroix says. “However terrible its consequences, pregnancy denial acts in infanticide cases much as a psychotic state that drives someone to kill another person does. Yet we still try women for what they do during pregnancy denial when we don’t try psychotic killers deemed not responsible for their actions.” Delcroix and others who are fighting for pregnancy denial to be medically and legally recognized as an illness argue that improving ways to identify and treat women with the ailment makes more sense than simply punishing the crimes they commit as a result of it.

What causes the condition? Several things, Delcroix says, including previous trauma such as beatings and rape. But other non-physical factors can also be involved, and denial can kick in even if a woman has had and raised children without problem previously – Lesage has a 14-year-old son; Dominique Cottrez has two grown daughters. And while pregnancy denial has been around for decades or longer, Delcroix says it’s now rising in frequency. The probable reason, he says, is changes in wider social factors that have downgraded the value of childhood, parenting and family.

But in some cases, it can also be a matter of women simply failing to see themselves as mothers. “Some women never manage to update their self-identity during pregnancy, [while others] want to become pregnant without wanting to procreate,” psychiatrist Pierre Lamothe told Le Parisien on Thursday. “When the child arrives, it doesn’t really exist for them. They don’t give it life, in psychological terms. If they saw it as a [real] baby, they wouldn’t kill it.” (See the 25 crimes of the past century.)

Others just never realize – or acknowledge – that they’re with child. Experts on pregnancy denial say most sufferers are either sufficiently overweight or experience such little body change that they simply assume they’ve gained some weight. In France, 230 women a year discover their pregnancy only while giving birth. Though only a fraction resort to infanticide, Delcroix fears that there are more of those cases that remain undiscovered than there are ones that come to light, as in Villiers-au-Tertre. And he poses a chilling question: does anyone really believe that the spreading phenomenon of pregnancy denial – and the infanticide it can lead to – is purely a French problem?

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