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The Trickiness of Explaining Pregnancy Denial and Infanticide

UPDATE (5 Aug 2010): Hat tip to David Garnier, whose comment got gobbled up by the ether monsters, but who pointed me to the admission of the woman in the case described, who says it actually isn’t pregnancy denial. Nope, she just doesn’t like doctors. (And that’s why she committed infanticide a bunch of times? Crikey!)

ORIGINAL POST: Robert Koehler twittered this article:

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 on 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 has become vital for the nation to confront the phenomenon that appears to be behind it all: a mental condition known as pregnancy denial.

The flaws in logic here are a little remarkable, really. Does five cases in seven years really represent a “new phenomenon”? How widely reported or unreported is this sort of thing elsewhere? After all, we do have a word for infanticide, meaning it’s not as if this never happened before today. And this “mental condition” is one that one former gynecologist describes as “a quasi-schizophrenic condition in which women either don’t realize or cannot accept that they are with child — not even enough to have an abortion.” There are some problems with that, the primary one being that one begins to wonder how tenable the “quasi-schizophrenic” diagnosis can be when it’s shared: after all, several such cases involve couples, with the husband in the case at hand being described by police as being “‘dumbstruck’ by the revelations.” I’m afraid that I’d strike the “struck” from the adjective for any man who didn’t notice his wife was pregnant any of the eight — eight! — times it has occurred. Either dumb, or mentally ill, would be my guess. It gets more interesting — that is, problematic — when we get to the question of causes:

What causes the condition? Several things, Delcroix says, including previous trauma such as beatings and rape. But other, nonphysical factors can also be involved, and denial can kick in even if a woman has already had and raised children without a problem — 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 rising in frequency. The probable reason, he says, is changes in wider social factors that have downgraded the value of childhood, parenting and family.

I am willing to buy the explanation that trauma can give rise to pregnancy denial — I’d believe that violent or other trauma could contribute to that state, at least. I’m more dubious about the idea that this could get the spouses of women in such denial to join in on the denial, though.

And as for “wider social factors” — I agree that childhood, parenting, and family have been devalued, primarily because the feminist critique of Western society was primarily aimed at empowering women, not in radically reformulating society in ways that empower women in the public space, while promoting the value of parenting, family, and childhood to greater importance in the lives of men.

(Briefly, what was traditionally considered “Men’s Work” was forced open for women, but what was traditionally considered “Women’s Work” remained relatively devalued, and was not significant;y rehabilitated in the interests of bringing about more equitable redistribution of unpaid, familial labour.)

The wider social factors argument, though, doesn’t seem to wash either. If “wider social factors” were really that powerful, wouldn’t we be seeing many more cases of infanticide? It seems to me that as with media, there’s a “third person effect” notable here when it comes to “social factors.” What’s a “third person effect? Well, in one study it was defined thus:

Communication scholars describe a pervasive “third person effect” wherein people see mass media as more likely to affect other people than themselves.

All those people who think homosexual acts in a film will propagate homosexuality? Or that violent acts in a movie cause kids to go kill classmates the next day? Or that violent video games breed violence? Or who blame sexual violence in schools on porn? (The Korean legislature being one such group.) They’re all seemingly under the spell of the “third person effect,” and you can burst their bubble by asking them whether they think they themselves would be turned into rapists, murderers, or whatever by watching a film or playing a game or reading a book or whatever.

The problem is that the “social trends” argument would explain the complicity of the husbands in these cases. The pure psychologizing of pregnancy denial in women seems less helpful when explaining the mens’ reactions. I suspect the real answer is that a certain number of people have a very powerful ability to deny reality, and in some cases this ability slips over to the pathological side; that unhealthy people tend to couple up (so that husbands are likely relatively as prone to the same kind of mental distortions as their wives); and that lots of couples are just terrible at communication.

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