It's not uncommon for advocacy groups to latch onto an issue in the news to promote their cause -- say an environmentalist group using a spate of major forest fires to raise money for conservation. The idea is to use some noteworthy event to draw attention to your own issue. But the National Organization for Women has gone off the deep end by embracing Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children a few months ago. It's a little like making Jeffrey Dahmer the national poster boy to draw attention to eating disorders.
NOW and a coalition of other feminist and civil liberties groups announced last week that they have formed a defense fund for Yates and have gone on a media blitz to gain attention to their new cause. NOW claims Yates should not be held responsible for her actions because she was suffering postpartum psychosis, a severe form of the more common postpartum depression. Yates is expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity when her case comes up for a hearing Sept. 12.
What is it with NOW? As usual, the group is pushing a double standard of justice: one for males, another for females. There's no question that the hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy and birth can cause depression, ranging from mild "baby blues" that last a few weeks to more debilitating forms that require medical intervention. But it's also true the male hormone testosterone plays a major role in provoking aggression, even violence. Yet we don't excuse criminal behavior in males because their hormones may contribute to their violent behavior. Should we let women off the hook because their hormones are out of whack temporarily?
Feminists used to argue that women's fluctuating hormones should not be used as an excuse to deny them jobs or positions of responsibility, much less legal culpability. Anyone who even suggested that female hormones might influence a woman's judgment was immediately labeled a sexist pig. Dr. Edgar Bergman, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's personal physician and confidant, became a national joke when he said a woman could never be president because females were subject to "raging hormones." Of course, Bergman made his remark back in 1970, before feminists decided premenstrual stress disorder and hot flashes were an excuse for everything from poor job performance to homicidal rages.
Yates may, in fact, be mentally ill, although the severity of her illness is very much debatable. She was treated for postpartum depression after the birth of her fourth child and again when her fifth child was born. Doctors put her on Haldol, a powerful drug usually prescribed for acute psychosis, and she was hospitalized for a time. But a court-appointed psychologist has judged her competent to stand trial and, moreover, says she suffers from "a serious mental disease, not a severe mental disease."
Either way, the legal standard that will be used to judge Yates' guilt or innocence is very different from a mental health diagnosis. The question a jury will be asked to decide is whether Yates understood the consequences of her action at the time and whether she knew what she was doing was wrong.
It's hard to argue she didn't. Yates' actions were cold-blooded and methodical. She drew the water in the tub, and then systematically brought each child into the bathroom and held its head under water until each one drowned. Her oldest boy, 7-year-old Noah, apparently tried to flee, but Yates chased him down and then struggled with him in the tub to make sure he was dead. After she drowned them, Yates lined each up on the bed, called her husband and told him he better come home, then called the police and told them what she had done. This last action makes it particularly hard for Yates to argue she didn't know what she was doing was wrong -- the legal standard for insanity.
If NOW was only interested in getting help for women who suffer from postpartum depression, an estimated 10-15 percent of women who give birth, or even the much rarer postpartum psychosis, which afflicts about one in 1,000 recent mothers (not much different from the incidence of other forms of psychosis in the general population), they could do better than adopt Andrea Yates' case. Making Yates their poster girl may get NOW on the talk show circuit, but it will make them even more of a fringe group than they already are.