In a surprisingly civilized and advanced move for our great state, local Texas House Democrats Jessica Farrar and Garnet Coleman co-authored and introduced a bill that would make post-partum psychosis a possible legal defense in trials of women who kill their children. Under the terms of the bill, in the sentencing phase of such trials, jurors could hear testimony about post-partum mental illnesses and could choose to apply them. Should they prove applicable, convicted women would be guilty of infanticide and not murder and thus would be receive a maximum of two years in prison.
The United Kingdom has had such a law since 1922; 28 other countries do too, but so far, no American state.
"It's something every civilized country has on its books," local attorney George Parnham told the Dallas Morning News. Parnham defended Andrea Yates in her 2002 trial for the drowning of her five children Clear Lake several years ago, at which she was convicted, and her 2006 appeal, at which her sentence was overturned on reason of insanity. Parnham is a leading advocate for the legislation. "The only thing that will change public attitude is education about postpartum issues."
Grits For Breakfast took on the issue, and requested a comment from local post-partum mental health expert Dr Lucy Puryear, who obliged as follows:
"I'm not sure I'm in favor of conducting a trial and then hearing evidence about postpartum issues that would mitigate the sentence. I AM in favor of what England has, which is when a mother kills a child less than one year of age, the mother is FIRST evaluated by mental health professionals and if found to be suffering from postpartum illness then she is given appropriate treatment. It IS a waste of time, talent, and money to put an otherwise well functioning woman through a lengthy and expensive court process when the issue is medical, not criminal."
Hair Balls attempted to contact Puryear without success, but we did talk to Atlanta-based Katherine Stone, a post-partum survivor, award-winning advocate for women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and the operator of Post-Partum Progress, America's most widely-read blog on the topic.
"It's such an ugly issue. It's very hard for anyone to imagine that anyone who kills a child -- and I have children myself -- should do anything other than burn at the stake," she says. "I would have agreed with all of them prior to experiencing post-partum depression myself. Now that I am aware that people can have thoughts that they are not in control of -- and mine were temporary and they weren't command hallucinations -- I do know now that it happens."
"People like that should not rot in jail for decades and decades," she says. "Does that mean that they shouldn't pay a price? No! I haven't seen a lot of people arguing that. In the case of Andrea Yates, I feel that the right thing happened in the end. She is in an institution and being cared for, but she's also not sitting at the beach. She's not out having a fun time. She was very ill and now she still is, because every time she gets better she regains an awareness of what happened, and then she gets sick again. And who wouldn't?"
Stone acknowledges that the insanity defense can be (and is) misused. "There are people who go out and do horrible things because they are selfish or angry, then they claim insanity to get out of trouble," she says. "Each case has to be looked at individually. If it's a trial, that's okay."
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Stone was disturbed and astounded by some of the comments that followed the Morning News story. In addition to claiming that women should just get a grip, many others claimed the legislation was just some more lib-rull nonsense.
"What, only Democrats get post-partum depression?" asks an incredulous Stone. "It's ridiculous to put it as liberal versus conservative. I am a lifelong conservative."
Stone says the great tragedy of the Yates case and most others like it is that they were preventable. Individual counseling and group therapy have proven to be very effective, as has medication and the combination of all three treatments. "I think that's what's getting left out," she says. "But I'm glad everybody's talking about it. People need to know it happens, people need to know what the signs are, people need to worry when a loved one shows the signs, and they need to know what to do about it."
At least there is that. As for the passage of the bill, let's just say that Stone is not optimistic. This is still, after all, Texas.