Tragedies of Postpartum Psychosis

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Tragedies of Postpartum Psychosis :
Ethical Decisions and Sentencing
PHI 107 Philosophy of Human Conduct
June 10, 2010

Brief Outline:
Description of Topic
Mental Hospital
Death Penalty
Ethics behind Harsh Sentencing
Kantian Ethics
Cultural Relativism
Ethics behind Sympathetic Sentencing
Feminist/Care Ethics


Tragedies of Postpartum Psychosis: Ethical Decisions and Sentencing Postpartum depression affects approximately ten to twenty-two percent of women and as many as about eighty percent of women suffer from some sort of “baby blues”. Even so, the much more serious problem of postpartum psychosis only occurs in as few as one in every five hundred births (Williams, 2002). Postpartum psychosis can have catastrophic outcomes, like in the case of Andrea Yates. What should happen to women like Andrea? Prison, the death penalty or a mental institution? Ethical issues, such as postpartum psychosis crimes, are debated using various theories of ethics.

Postpartum psychosis tends to have a rapid onset within the first four weeks after giving birth, whereas postpartum depression has a slower onset occurring around weeks six through twelve after childbirth (Williams, 2002). In postpartum psychosis, the symptoms include mood changes, delusional thoughts, paranoia and hallucinations. Symptoms can intensify or lessen. Women suffering are often afraid to ask for help due to the paranoia and guilt felt surround the disorder. Left to manage symptoms themselves, tragedies often occur as affected women committing suicide or infanticide. When such crimes occur, people debate how to deal with the women accused.

Being committed to a mental institution is one course of action for such women. The argument for this is that these women are in need of psychiatric treatment, that they are unable to distinguish between right or wrong at the time of act due to their altered view on reality. Andrea Yates, for example, believed that she had Satan inside her and that she was unable to raise the children properly because of it; that they couldn’t be saved and were going to burn in hell (Roche, 2002). Andrea believed that her being evil was causing her children to not be righteous and that she needed to be executed. The only way for that to happen was for Andrea to kill her children.

Women accused of such crimes can get the help they need in an institution, where they are unable to harm themselves or their children. These women always carry with them the horror and guilt for what they have done, once they are no longer sick. Postpartum psychosis is a mental disability and should be treated as such. It would be a huge injustice to the affected women to be placed in prison, or worse yet sentenced to death. The crimes that they commit, infanticide and the like, are unspeakable; however it would not serve them or society well to have them locked up in prison and continue to suffer from this illness. If placed in a mental institution they may be rehabilitated into productive members of society once again. However there are opposing views on this subject.

One of the opposing thoughts is that the crimes are so heinous that these women must pay retribution for what they have done (Anonymous, 2008). Many believe that convicted women should be paying their debt to society from behind prison bars, that these women are a risk to society like any other murderer and should serve time accordingly. Complicating the situation are the callous women who commit such crimes and then use postpartum psychosis as a defense when they are not suffering from this illness. One example of such would be Susan Smith, who lied about the disappearance of her two young sons and then later claimed that she suffered from postpartum depression causing her to kill her children. Investigators on her case found that she was dating a man who “wasn’t ready for a ready-made family (Gibbs, Booth, Gregory, Monroe,...
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