Representative Jessica Farrar (D-TX) has introduced a new bill to the Texas Legislature which could limit jail time for mothers who commit infanticide while suffering from postpartum psychosis.
While adoption of this historic bill would not replace or affect the appropriate use of the insanity defense for such crimes – a defense which can eliminate jail time while mandating sustained psychological treatment - it would limit jail time consideration during the penalty phase to two years for mothers deemed to have been under the influence of a pregnancy or lactation related psychosis within 12 months of giving birth at the time of the offense.
George Parnham, the Houston based attorney who defended Andrea Yates, helped draft the legislation and as a practitioner and advocate, I served as a reviewer. Mr. Parnham has been an unfailing advocate and champion of this issue, helping to lead professionals and constituents toward enlightened consideration rather than prejudicial condemnation. Parnham, Farrar, and Dr. Margaret Spinelli, expert witness and author of the book Infanticide, exemplify the convergence of social justice and compassion as they seek to inform and reform social, psychiatric and legal perspectives on maternal mental health issues. You can read the story which broke in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News by Wendy Hundley.
The primarily outraged comments which follow the story - the majority in passionate opposition to the measure - evidence the ongoing stigma of mental illness which seems to escalate to merciless intolerance upon consideration of a mentally ill mother. Is it any wonder that encouraging suffering mothers to reach out for help has proved so challenging? Former New Jersey First Lady Mary Jo Codey has tried to encourage early identification and treatment through her “Speak Up When You’re Down” campaign.
While the death or harm to a helpless infant brings understandable revulsion, jurors are charged with consideration of crime context when deliberating punishment. The insanity defense exists because severe mental illness is a reality which blinds reason.