Falling

When Naomi Gaines threw her babies into the river, we were shocked. The truth is, her impulse isn't all that rare.

From medieval times on, many infants born to women of means were sent to rural areas to be fed and cared for by wet nurses. Of course, many were not in fact nursed enough, or were nursed only until their families' payments stopped, at which point they were at the mercy of an invariably contaminated water supply.

Throughout Europe, millions of infants were turned over to foundling homes, where mortality rates sometimes reached 85 percent. There were 16 such homes in Tuscany alone, Hrdy notes. The largest, Innocenti, received 15,000 infants from 1755 to 1773 alone; two-thirds died before their first birthday. During one year, in the homes opened in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 18th-century European Enlightenment, 99 percent of infants admitted died. Still, the homes operated for centuries.

"Because there were rarely enough lactating nurses to go around, foundling homes did little more than forestall death from exposure--just long enough to ensure that the baby was baptized," Hrdy writes. "A mother who abandons her infant to a foundling home--even those where mortality rates are in the vicinity of 90 percent--is regarded as unfortunate, but legally and spiritually blameless. Technically, her infant will die of malnutrition or dysentery, not neglect; she did not kill it."

 

 

Christian Rites and the Christian Right
In 1997, Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine exploring the infamous case of the New Jersey teen who gave birth in the bathroom during her high school prom, left her dead baby in a garbage can, and returned to the dance floor. He argued that "normal human motives are not always moral, and neonaticide does not have to be a product of malfunctioning neural circuitry or a dysfunctional upbringing." The legal system, he argued, should deal with these parents accordingly.

For his trouble, Pinker was accused of promoting infanticide. The late conservative columnist Michael Kelly (who died in Iraq in April) raged that Pinker "came out for killing babies." Inevitably, Kelly's right-and-wrong rant veered into the murky waters of whether life begins at birth.

A vast amount has been written on this topic, much of it by social scientists who note that many cultures reserve naming, christening, or other rites of admission to the clan for a time when they're sure that the baby in question is a keeper. Even though christening is a Christian rite, religious antiabortion groups reject this sort of distinction. They would prefer that abortion--and even certain forms of contraception--be termed infanticide.

Minneapolis freelance writer and self-described "Paleo-Conservatarian" Lee Shelton was quick to raise exactly this argument in his online Toogood Report after Gaines tossed her toddlers into the Mississippi. "I contend that in the eyes of a society that has embraced infanticide for the last 30 years, she did exactly the right thing," he ranted. "After all, if she had decided to kill her children a mere 15 months ago, she could have done it in an abortion clinic without anyone taking notice."

Hrdy notes that among the hunter-gatherer !Kung, a woman goes into the bush alone to give birth. If she comes back alone, she is not regarded as a killer. If she comes back with a baby, it is taken into the group and will be protected.

Today, amniocentesis allows us to make that decision months earlier. Although technically the decision of what to do when the results of the test aren't promising is left up to the mother, society has evolved an entire apparatus for deciding what to test for and how to classify the results. Insurance companies cheerfully pay to test the fetus of a 35-year-old woman for Down's syndrome, for instance, but usually won't pay to check for cystic fibrosis on the rationale that a baby's CF might be "managed" for several decades.

 

 

There but for the Grace of God

Mine An Ener chose not to undergo amniocentesis, and gave birth to a girl with Down's syndrome. The baby needed a nasal gastric feeding tube, which required round-the-clock maintenance. Ener is 38, white, married, and a tenured professor at Villanova University. She had recently begun treatment for postpartum depression.

On August 4, Ener finished feeding her baby around 9:00 a.m. She carried the six-month-old girl into the kitchen of her mother's home in St. Paul. She picked up a large knife, and then continued on into the bathroom, where she slit the baby's throat. When medics arrived in response to a 911 call, they found Ener's mother holding her daughter from behind in what the newspapers described as an "embrace." Her hands, still clutching the knife, were crossed over her chest.

According to police, Ener said she didn't want the baby "to go through life suffering." The Pioneer Press printed a profile of Ener under the headline, "A Mother's Losing Struggle." Friends described her as wracked by guilt for her inability to make her daughter well, and for her own failure to cope. Readers who wrote to the Pioneer Press described her as selfish and accused her of taking the easy way out.

Last year an Inver Grove Heights woman smothered her six-month-old daughter, who suffered her entire life from several painful birth defects and who sometimes had several seizures a day. The baby, Amanda Mae, had her very own website where her parents chronicled months of traumatic attempts to sort out the various chromosomal abnormalities she suffered.

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