The question is as horrifying as it is important to ask: Why are a rising number of French women killing their newborn babies? Finding the answer has become a matter of urgency following the discovery on Wednesday of eight infants allegedly smothered to death and buried by their mother in northern France. And with that case marking at least the fifth instance of multiple infanticide reported in France since 2003, it has become vital for the nation to confront the phenomenon that appears to be behind it all: a mental condition known as pregnancy denial.
This latest case of newborn murder in France was uncovered in the northern town of Villiers-au-Tertre, after eight tiny bodies were found buried in the gardens of two separate homes. Six of the cadavers were unearthed on July 29 by police at the house of Dominique Cottrez, 45, and her husband Pierre-Marie, 47. Investigators searched their home after the resident of a house previously owned by Dominique's parents turned up two tiny bodies on July 24 while digging a pool in the backyard. According to the French prosecutor leading the inquiry in the town, a short distance south of Lille, Dominique has admitted to hiding her pregnancies — and the killings of her babies — from her husband, whom police describe as being "dumbstruck" by the revelations. Dominique was charged for the murders; Pierre-Marie has been cleared of wrongdoing and released but could yet become a subject of investigation.
Experts explained those cases as resulting from pregnancy denial, an often misunderstood and minimized condition. According to Michel Delcroix, a former gynecologist who served as a court expert in the Courjault trial and others involving pregnancy issues, pregnancy denial is a quasi-schizophrenic condition in which women either don't realize or cannot accept that they are with child — not even enough to have an abortion. Whether these women are afflicted with the condition before they deliver or as they're suddenly giving birth, Delcroix explains, the psychological denial is so strong that they refuse to believe they're pregnant even when the reality confronts them.
"These women are so convinced pregnancy is impossible that once the child they never wanted arrives, they don't accept it as real and get rid of it to restore order to what they believe is nonpregnant reality," Delcroix says. "However terrible its consequences, pregnancy denial acts in infanticide cases much as a psychotic state that drives someone to kill another person does. Yet we still try women for what they do during pregnancy denial when we don't try psychotic killers deemed not responsible for their actions." Delcroix and others who are fighting for pregnancy denial to be medically and legally recognized as an illness argue that improving ways to identify and treat these women makes more sense than simply punishing the crimes they commit as a result of it.