MDX criminologist investigates criminal justice responses to women suspected of infanticide

21/02/2019
Women suspected of killing their newborn children are often vulnerable and in crisis situations. Why does the criminal justice system fail to recognise this?

Dr Emma Milne, a Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex, has received funding from the Socio-Legal Studies Association to extend her PhD investigating criminal justice responses to women suspected of killing their newborn children.

Dr Milne’s book will draw on 14 cases from England and Wales of women convicted of offences relating to the death of their newborn child (infanticide, murder, manslaughter, concealment of birth, procuring a miscarriage, and cruelty towards a child), representing an almost complete sample of cases from 2010 to 2017.

Dr Milne argues, women suspected of killing their newborn children challenge ideals of motherhood and her analysis of court transcripts illustrate that concerns of the courts lie not only with the child’s death, but also the women’s failure to act as an appropriate mother.

“However, what is often overlooked is that vulnerability surrounds these cases. It is very unusual for a woman to conceal her pregnancy, and even more unusual for the baby to die following the woman giving birth in secret. Such occurrences only happen if a woman has complex factors in her life. And yet, in many cases, the criminal justice system appears unable to recognise the vulnerable position of these women and to respond accordingly.” Dr Emma Milne, Middlesex University

Milne’s analysis reveals that women accused of infanticide are some of the most vulnerable in society. They have often been living in violent and abusive relationships, been too scared of their family’s reaction to reveal their pregnancy, and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder following rape, and mental health problems. She says:

“The behaviour of women accused of killing their newborn children contradict ideals of the ‘mother’ and perceptions of maternal conduct. These offences can also be difficult to prove and convictions hard to secure. Therefore, prosecutors are required to be creative in order to secure a conviction.”

“However, what is often overlooked is that vulnerability surrounds these cases. It is very unusual for a woman to conceal her pregnancy, and even more unusual for the baby to die following the woman giving birth in secret. Such occurrences only happen if a woman has complex factors in her life. And yet, in many cases, the criminal justice system appears unable to recognise the vulnerable position of these women and to respond accordingly.”

Milne’s research offers the first analysis of court transcripts in cases of newborn child death taking into account child killing in the wider context of harm to the foetus. The research will also provide a unique analysis of this gender-based offending in England against a backdrop of international experiences. She concludes:

“An important aspect of the cases examined in this research is that they need to be understood in the context of reproductive freedom and rights for all women. As a society we hold women to high standards in terms of how they should feel and behave when they discover they are pregnant. We need to free women from expectations that draw on traditional ideals of femininity and motherhood and so provide room for different narratives relating to pregnancy to develop. In doing so, we may be able to prevent the tragic outcome that currently occurs when a woman feels she has no choice but hide her pregnancy, believing the death of the child to be her only viable option.”

Click here to find out more about studying Criminology at Middlesex.

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