'Denial of pregnancy is not classified as a psychiatric illness'

A case of a French mother who hid her smothered newborn babies in a freezer has highlighted the phenomenon of pregnancy denial. FRANCE 24 interviewed Felix Navarro, president of the French Association for the Recognition of Pregnancy Denial.


FRANCE 24 – Is denial of pregnancy considered a medical disorder?

Felix Navarro – No. Denial of pregnancy is not classified as a psychiatric illness. However, doctors know it well. Our objective is indeed to have it recognised. We think that this will make treating those who suffer from it easier. Denial is the act of not recognising what is inevitable, but in these cases the body shows no sign of pregnancy. Normal pregnant women gain weight, but for those who suffer from denial, weight gain is limited to two or three kilos.

We even observed that certain women lost weight while expecting! They often have a flat stomach and go to the beach mere days before delivery. The symptoms are thus reduced, even absent, and often misinterpreted. Certain signs may create confusion. The women very often have their period. Some of them say they suspected they were pregnant, but that the return of their period misled them.

F24 – You describe cases in which the delivery ultimately goes well, but under certain circumstances the result can be tragic. How frequent is this?

F.N. – The great majority of these cases turn out fine. According to the most recent studies, pregnancy denial is present in about one out of 500 deliveries. In France, it’s about 300 cases per year. On the other hand, total denial, meaning when a woman discovers her pregnancy while giving birth, is rarer: one out of 2,500 pregnancies. Each year, there might be a few dozen of these cases where the baby dies. But that includes both natural deaths and murders.

One must understand the circumstances under which these situations arise. A woman who has total pregnancy denial suffers terribly painful symptoms that she doesn’t understand. Her water breaks and she sees something coming out of her body: something she can’t fully discern, something that is sometimes inanimate and that the woman doesn’t necessarily identify as a baby.

The deliveries can happen anywhere; in the bathroom, in the street, in the car, at the office…In all cases, the conditions are not ideal; these women risk their own lives and are certainly not in a position to care for their babies properly.
Certain women are seized by extreme panic, or are delirious, and in a moment of psychosis can do something fatal. Fortunately, most of them suffer pain that incites them to go to the hospital.

F24 – This phenomenon is better known today, as certain studies have been published on the subject. Does that mean these women are better taken care of?

F.N. – It's still very inconsistent and often depends on where the women end up. Some women suffering from painful symptoms go to the hospital and are sent home, even though they are about to give birth! But if they’re treated by specialists who are familiar with pregnancy denial, they will be well taken care of. These women are generally misunderstood. I’m not referring to Veronique Courjault, whose specific case I don’t know.


F24 – In confirmed cases of pregnancy denial, do the women have criminal intent?

F.N. – How could they, when they don’t even know they're expecting? In these cases, infanticide is not premeditated. The judgment of the women is altered, they’re not aware of what they’re doing. Logically, they should not be tried. They are in a sort of state of temporary insanity. Cases of repeated pregnancy denial are rarer, but do exist – therein lies the utility of treating the women concerned. Some of these women only become aware of their previous infanticides during their trial! In some of these cases an explanation is offered: a repressed psychoanalytic problem – something so deep that it blocks the woman’s own maternity process.


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