Infanticide in Australia

I have just finished reading Helen Garner’s monumental collection of non fiction, True Stories. One piece stands out on several levels, called Punishing Karen.

Karen is the name she gives to a 17 year old schoolgirl who cried off school, claiming she had a cold. Instead, she went into labour, then punched her baby boy to death, wrapped him in a towel and left him on the floor while she showered. Her mother saw the bloodied sheets and was told by Karen she had had a heavy period, but then the dead baby was discovered. She was arrested and charged with infanticide; she had claimed to have collapsed on the baby but the broken bones were evidence against this. Eventually she admitted to assaulting him as she didn’t want to keep him.

This sounds like the behaviour of a monster, but the girl was a successful, popular student from a good family. She faced up to five years for infanticide (for a child over twelve months old it became murder). This difference shows that Australian law acknowledges the traumatic psychological effects of birth on a mother. In this case, expert witnesses suggested a further refinement of the law to recognise neonaticide, ie the death of a baby within the first twenty four hours. Though Garner provides no figures, she claims that about half of girls who conceal their pregnancy murder the baby.

This is utterly chilling, and in a world where so much information is available, from friends, family and the internet, such ignorance is inexplicable. But we are not dealing with ignorance, but denial, which suggests she was in a strange psychological state; she knew she was pregnant, but did not seek care, or advice on abortion. In past times, women in this position sought home remedies, or turned to friends and family for advice to dispose of the pregnancy. She just hoped it would go away.

Garner also questions how she could have concealed her condition. Her mother – and presumably friends – noticed she had put on weight, but when she denied she was pregnant, so her mother accepted this. Which leaves a lot of questions about her relationship with her friends. Though in many first pregnancies, the weight gain is often minimal.

Suggestions were made that this denial can suppress symptoms and even pain. They gave birth near other people without being noticed, so they did not cry in pain. Some girls even denied knowing about their child. Babies have been found in cupboards, even in office filing cabinets. These young women really were in a strange place, which makes their position difficult for the law to evaluate and deal with.

In eighteenth century England, infanticide was a crime on both legal and moral levels, and the punishment was generally to be hanged. But hanging – especially in public – was meant to deter others, but in the above cases, this could not work. A woman who fell pregnant out of wedlock was described as a fallen woman. Even if the child was the result of seduction/rape of the master of the house, the girl was seen as the guilty one. It is possible that many didn’t actually know what was happening to them when the baby was born.

People in the countryside were used to seeing animals do what nature intended, but many young girls were sent away from their families to become domestic servants in cities, were often away from friends and family who could advise them to be wary of becoming involved with men. The objection widely held against novels was that they provided images of romance with none of the responsibilities that went with choosing a partner wisely, and of the dangers of intimacy before the man became legally responsible for her.

The fact that Australia is recognising so many forms of infanticide suggests this is a significant problem, and yet how can this be with so much information and advice available to young women?  I’m not there so I can’t really say. But I keep thinking about Terry Gillam’s complaints about modern Hollywood providing too many stories that have no widows or orphans. Too often heroes stride thorough battle zones unharmed whilst blasting away at enemies. There is no aftermath, no counting of bodies. Or maybe it’s about the stresses of modern life, the barrage of information, and the numbness it creates. These girls put on trial for killing babies know what is happening to them, they see but they cannot respond. This looks to me like shock. They could bleed to death when giving birth alone, but they can’t think that far, they cannot deal with it in the open. They delay, they deny, they fail to act in their own best interests. This is recognisable mental illness, not a crime, and the legal system – at least in Australia – seems to be acknowledging that prison is not the right solution. But it also flags up that something seems to be going seriously wrong in what was once called The Lucky Country. 

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