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Postpartum Psychosis, Infanticide and the Law

NCJ Number
Crime Law and Social Change Volume: 15 Issue: 2 Dated: (March 1991) Pages: 109-123
D Maier-Katkin
Date Published
15 pages
In the past few years, postpartum psychosis has been offered as a legal defense in a small number of infanticide cases in several American jurisdictions.
These cases have generated a great deal of media attention and have fueled public discussion about the mental health status of mothers who kill their own babies. From the criminologist's perspective, the cases represent an extraordinary pattern of criminal behavior involving the murder of children by their own mothers with no apparent motive. Questions at the core of criminal responsibility concern whether the mother is insane at the time, whether her behavior is the product of a diseased state of mind, and whether her behavior is premeditated and willful. A considerable body of research literature focuses on biological factors in the etiology of postpartum psychosis. Some studies indicate that women with the greatest fluctuation in estrogen, progesteron, and other hormone levels are most likely to experience depression. Other studies indicate that the onset of postpartum disorders may also be associated with psychosocial factors. Cited examples demonstrate that most American jurisdictions resolve infanticide cases with a finding of insanity. Women who commit these crimes are seen as victims themselves of a devastating disease that leaves them in grief and chastened by the consequences of their own misbehavior. (Author abstract modified)