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How do courts judge mothers who kill their babies?

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2010-07-31

The latest infanticide case in France has drawn disgust and anger at home and abroad, but not all countries are ready to treat baby-killing mothers the same way.

The discovery of eight dead newborns in a sleepy town in northern France has captured national and international headlines with its improbable and gruesome plot: an introverted mother admits she suffocated her babies and hid their bodies in her garage, after concealing the pregnancy from her husband and delivering the soon-to-be victims herself. 

The story of Dominique Cottrez, 46, immediately drew comparisons with two recent maternal neonaticide cases in France. Céline Lesage was sent to jail last march for killing six of her babies between 1999 and 2007. Véronique Courjault, another Frenchwoman, was found guilty last year of killing three of her newborns by tucking them away in a freezer.
And while the incident spawned news titles such as “Why are French mothers killing their babies?”, this latest case also recalls infanticides in Poland, the Netherlands and the United States in the past eight years, and shares many disturbing similarities with the case of Sabine Hilschenz of Germany, convicted in 2006 of also killing eight of her newborns.
Even if the murder of defenceless newborns draws disgust and anger around the world, not all courts treat infanticide cases the same way.
Some 30 countries have special infanticide laws to provide a diminished capacity defence for the accused mothers. “It’s recognition of the tremendous emotional and hormonal upheaval these women experienced,” explains Geoffrey McKee, a clinical professor at the University of South Carolina Medical School and author of Why Mothers Kill.
Countries with special neonaticide laws comprise a diverse list that includes England, Canada and Sweden, as well as India, Brazil and Turkey.
In France the term “infanticide”, a crime that once carried a 10 to 20 year prison sentence, was stricken from law books in 1994. Under France’s current penal code, Cottrez will be charged with the French legal equivalent of first-degree murder and risks life in prison.
“In the US we don’t give anybody a break,” jokes McKee, who nevertheless holds that US law is more consistent with the research that exists on the subject. “Research shows that mothers who kill their newborns are rarely severely mentally ill,” he insists.
McKee, who has interviewed 33 girls and women charged with killing their young children, says it is a relatively common event, which society ignores because the bodies are often not found.
However, repeated killings, like Cottrez', are very rare. Unlike Lesage and Courjault, whose lawyers argued that they suffered from pregnancy denial, clouding the knowledge of their crimes, early reports suggest Cottrez was conscious of the appalling acts she committed over many years.
Lesage and Coujault received 15 and eight years in jail respectively for their crimes. Even though France does not have separate neonaticide laws, judges tend to consider women convicted of killing their young children uncommon murderers, and have, in the recent past, afforded special leniency in their sentences.

Date created : 2010-07-30


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