Andrea Yates and NOW

I am not the biggest fan of NOW, but being the most recognized feminist organization in the United States, feel the need to come to NOW’s defense in this instance.

Jay Tea at Wizbang, in discussing the recent ruling to re-try and -sentence Andrea Yates, wonders:

It was really driven home to me this time, though, when it came out that the National Organization for Women had raised the funds for the appeal. Does NOW really want to be associated with a woman who murdered all five of her children?

It goes even deeper than that. I happen to be pro-choice on the abortion issue, as is NOW, but do they really want to leave themselves open to charges that they favor the right of women to kill their children on a whole new front?

Allow me.

Ignoring the implications of baby-killing and NOW in the pro-abortion rights movement, NOW does not support “the right of women to kill their children.” Thie difference between the abortion of an unviable fetus and the killing of five self-sustaining children is something I never hope to argue with a man who declares himself pro-choice. Bad choice of language, Jay Tea.

Yates, if a victim of anything, is a victim of bad medical care and of an illness that was not well-known or oft discussed until after her murder case broke the news. Post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis are now well-recognized as forms of serious illness that must be watched for, treated, and maintained after the birth of a child. Yates was considered by all experts in the trial, but for the expert whose testimony was rescinded, to be emotionally unwell and did not know right from wrong at the time of the killing. Add that she had been removed from her medication and was isolated from outside help by virtue of her family’s lifestyle, despite everyone knowing and later publicly acknowledging that she was unfit to watch the children, and this case becomes the ultimate tragic example of how poor medical treatment for mental health plays out in the most horrific ways.

NOW’s support for Yates was again and again announced by the organization to be an attempt to ensure that the judiciary, the medical community, and the culture-at-large “consider tragedies of this sort in the full context of the nature of postpartum depression,” and calls for more research into the illness. In addition, NOW took an official stance on the nature of this post-pregnancy condition where no official literature existed before.

Previously dismissed as the “baby blues,” postpartum depression is a virtually paralyzing condition of depression brought on by the onslaught of hormones and trauma on the body after the birth of a child. On the other hand, postpartum psychosis is recognized by the government as:

a very serious mental illness that can affect new mothers. This illness can happen quickly, often within the first 3 months after childbirth. Women can lose touch with reality, often having auditory hallucinations (hearing things that aren’t actually happening, like a person talking) and delusions (seeing things differently from what they are). Visual hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there) are less common. Other symptoms include insomnia (not being able to sleep), feeling agitated (unsettled) and angry, and strange feelings and behaviors. Women who have postpartum psychosis need treatment right away and almost always need medication. Sometimes women are put into the hospital because they are at risk for hurting themselves or someone else.

Sounds like Andrea Yates.

Antepartum symptoms are often observed as well, as they were in the Yates case.

After the Yates trial broke, many women came forward on a public level to announce that they could, in some dark and often shameful way, sympathize with the illness and the outcome. Some admitted that they too had felt so unfit, depressed, and/or desperate, that they had thought about hurting their children. And then they often felt worse that they had had these uncontrollable thoughts and feelings at all. But the outcome of this public discussion became an important commentary on the isolation of parenthood, gender roles in marriage and parenting, household responsibilities, the importance of sound mental health, and the societal expectations of motherhood. Women were allowed to admit that good motherhood is not instinctual, but learned, and that it takes many women some time to bond with their children in truly meaningful ways.

One reason that the Yates case is so shocking on a gender level is because it smacks to the ground the notion that motherhood comes naturally.

Why does the testimony of Patrick Dietz matter? This comes to mind:

The effect of Dietz’ testimony was to give jurors the impression that Yates had killed the children believing she could escape responsibility by pretending to be insane, based on the non-existent episode of Law & Order.

As does this (from the comments of Wizbang):

The prosecution used it to impeach a defense expert witness, i.e., made the expert and her opinion look less credible. The implication was that the expert did not factor in that Yates got the idea from this program when rendering an opinion whether she knew right from wrong.

Then, in his closing, the prosecutor argued that Yates got the idea to kill her kids from the L&O episode she saw, therefore she had both premeditation, the necessary intent, and knew right from wrong. One problem: She never saw the episode because it does not exist…

[The courts] do overturn verdicts for insufficient evidence. An element of the offense that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt is her mental state, i.e., premeditation, intent, etc. Except for Dietz, all the evidence from the experts was that she was nuts. If you subtract Dietz because his evidence was false, all you are left with is evidence that she did not know right from wrong.

Andrea Yates’ lawyers will not seek her freedom. Even if she wins the retrial, she will be under watch by the court system and will likely remain institutionalized for the majority of her life. In addition, if necessary, the state has the opportunity to try Yates for the death of two other children, an option they likely decided to guard in case of some unexpected turn during an appeal like this one.

NOW fought for the rights of this woman because it became apparent very quickly that she does not belong in a prison, but in a hospital. And unlike the assertions of those who commented at Wizbang that NOW supported the notion that “anyone at home with 5 kids would go crazy,” I have yet to find anything by any member of NOW that supports that assertion. These antequated and stereotypical renderings of mental illness do no one any favors, especially those in dire need of treatment for mental health.

If one good thing came from this tragedy, it is the new recognition of the necessity of women’s mental health in motherhood and in the postpartum period. I can’t think of much else to incite optimism whatsoever.

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19 comments for “Andrea Yates and NOW

  1. January 7, 2005 at 10:34 am

    Yes. Since when is arguing that the proper sentence should be decided based on non-perjured testimony such a radical idea?

  2. Meaghan
    January 7, 2005 at 10:52 am

    Great analysis, Lauren. I’m curious, though, why aren’t you the biggest fan of NOW?

  3. January 7, 2005 at 11:09 am

    I find most of NOW’s promotional literature to be reactionary and crisis-oriented, something that screams at me in the most irritating ways. While I respect their historical place in feminism, I’m far more interested in seeing progress than talking the language of an oppressive patriarchy and a sky that could fall at any time.

    In addition, I’m troubled with the reputation that NOW has gotten and can’t seem to shake, and I find that some of their literature, while poorly interpreted, doesn’t do much to counter anti-feminist claims. I’d like to see NOW insist on and promote a more tempered and less reactionary feminism that promotes what feminism is, rather than appearing primarily in these extreme cases. While I understand that not all of this can be laid at the feet of the orgnaization (and much of it can be laid at the feet of pop media and right-wing and fundamentalist groups), I still find NOW to be lacking in several areas.

  4. January 7, 2005 at 11:49 am

    I’m with you, Lauren. I wonder how his computer accepted the phrases “happen to be pro-choice” and “kill their children on a whole new front” without developing a critical runtime error and shutting the fuck down.

    As for the defendant in this case, I think she’s floridly psychotic. I see it not as a woman’s issue, per se, but a disability rights issue. Texas executes a good number of people who think that the CIA is implanting devices in their fillings, and it was by a small miracle (or recognition by the jury that she was off-the-charts insane) that Yates got life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.

    Solipsistic trivia: the Yates family lived approximately three blocks from my childhood (ages 2-16) house.

  5. January 7, 2005 at 12:23 pm

    I think it is both a women’s issue and a disability/mental health issue, the way that issues can often overlap, you know? I also think it brought up such valuable conversations, and I’m one of those women who stood on a cliff of post-partum depression and clearly saw the abyss of psychosis below, but was lucky enough to have support, help and a good doctor.

    I agree on the NOW issue, too. and hey, I’m delurking! yay me!

  6. January 7, 2005 at 12:49 pm

    i felt a good deal of rage when one of the commenters stated outright that feminists are bad mothers. WTF?

  7. January 7, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Brava, Lauren…great analysis and awesome ass kicking. I agree that a lot of times NOW appears to be only a “Chicken Little” organization. But I have to say that yes, it’s the media that paints us like that, said the current dues-paying-member. NOW does a lot of things in the background that doesn’t get press that is more in lined with that you want from fighting for real welfare reform to Love Your Body Day. But then again, someone has to be the crazy radical feminist organization and NOW does a great job at it.

  8. January 7, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    Lauren, I try to be an honest analyst. I never said the “baby-killing” accusation would be fair or accurate — simply that I could easily foresee it happening. To the pro-life crowd (I give each side the respect of calling them by the term they prefer), it’s not a very big conceptual stretch at all. And NOW should at least be aware of it, so they can prepare for it.


  9. January 7, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    Jay Tea: “I never said the “baby-killing” accusation would be fair or accurate – simply that I could easily foresee it happening.”

    I understand, I was simply stating that this is a women’s health issue for NOW, not anything else implied by you or your commenters. Trying to answer your initial question of why NOW is involved at all.

  10. January 7, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Hey Lauren…it’s Alice from the knitting crew. I’m wondering what NOW has to say about this one: Iranian adulteress faces noose or stoning
    Sat Dec 18, 2004 11:52 AM GMT

  11. January 7, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    “i felt a good deal of rage when one of the commenters stated outright that feminists are bad mothers. WTF?”

    We’re bad mothers because they think we put ourselves before our children. And that could mean anything, from having a job or a hobby that isn’t child-centered or sitting in front of the computer reading blogs while the kids try to pelt the shit out of each other with nerf balls (ahem.) And dru, I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your e-mail. My husband inexplicably deleted everything in my Inbox, a charge he denies but really, who else could have done it? It wasn’t me.

  12. January 7, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    i think the ONLY proper response to nerf-ball pelting is some very studious blog examining. But, then, being one of those evil, self-centered feminists, I’m totally out of the running for “morther of the year.”

    No problem about not responding. Love to the mamas.

  13. January 7, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    I blogged on this today at my site…..(shameless plug:

    I think what Andrea Yates had to go through (and still has to go through) is shameful. She’s severaly mentally ill. The system failed her. The overturning of her conviction is a small leap toward justice but I doubt it will stand.

    Today in my post I blogged about my own postpartum depression…and how I can understand to some degree Andrea’s pain and confusion. It’s absolute agony.

    The person that should be in prison is that freak husband of hers…who insisted on continuing procreation knowing of her psychosis.

  14. January 7, 2005 at 5:47 pm

    People think she doesn’t deserve a fair trial ostensibly because her crime was against “natural” womanhood and therefore she isn’t human. But really I think that a large part of it is that it makes people wildly uncomfortable to consider how religion can co-mingle with mental illness and turn deadly.

  15. Emma Anne
    January 7, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    Awesome post. And I agree with you about NOW’s literature. Overwraught and panicky, constantly. I guess it is good fund raising technique, but not from me.

  16. January 8, 2005 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you. Just thank you.

  17. January 8, 2005 at 3:47 pm

    Finally, I saw someone else agree with me about the husband’s culpability in this crime. Carla, yes! I have always wondered why her husband & her doctor did not also face some sort of accessory charge. They BOTH knew how screwed up she was– the husband used to take breaks to go “check on her and the kids”. Yet they insisted on having her home-school five children, and did not send her to the hospital care she needed in order to protect ALL of the lives involved. It’s almost like she was a loaded gun they carelessly left lying around the kids. Maybe she did the actual act, but they certainly contributed by allowing a woman as messed up as she was to remain in that environment.

    Supporting fair trials for someone who was clearly suffering major imabalance is not at all the same thing as supporting murder of children. And neither is being pro-choice. Being pro-choice mostly means that you recognize there are generally all kinds of shades of grey involved here, and life is complicated. While I personally am not a fan of abortion at all, I believe strongly if someone else needs one for her mental health, she should be free to choose a safe & legal one. I also do not think Andrea Yates ought to get off scott-free– she ought to get some medical help, not be stuck in prison. It’s almost torture, it seems to me, to put a woman as sick as she is in prison.

  18. January 9, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    I certainly held her husband culpable. The man knew her condition, knew what it could lead to, he had been warned. I think he should be in jail. If the situation had been reversed, if a woman realized that her dh was a danger to the child but left the child with him anyway, she’d be tossed in the jail beside him.

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