French Baby Killings: Was it Mental Illness or Murder?

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Undated picture posted in Facebook by the 45-year-old nursing assistant Dominique Cottrez

If any crime defies both logic and nature most fully, it's the act of parental infanticide. So it's perhaps not surprising that despite the full confession that Dominique Cottrez gave to French investigators following her July 27 arrest, many questions remain about how and why she smothered her eight newborn children and hid their bodies.

Details of the case continued to emerge Friday, nearly 24 hours after French prosecutor Eric Vaillant informed the press that Cottrez had admitted to killing her eight newborns and hiding their bodies at two houses in the northern French village of Villiers-au-Tertre. The horrible affair began on July 24 when the owner of a home Cottrez and her parents had previously lived in found two tiny bodies buried in their garden. After that person had been cleared as a suspect, police picked up Cottrez and her husband for questioning on July 27 — during which Cottrez eventually admitted to having killed those babies, and told police where they could find six other cadavers at her current home.

According to Vaillant, after suffering through what she described as the "trauma" of being criticized and ridiculed about her weight by hospital staff during the deliveries of her two daughters — who are now grown — Cottrez decided not to have any more children. However, she also refused to consult doctors about obtaining contraceptives — either out of timidity or religious conviction, according to clashing media reports. Each subsequent time she fell pregnant, Vaillant said, Cottrez, who weighs nearly 330 lbs, was able to hide her condition from co-workers, friends and family — including husband Pierre-Marie. Then, according to Vaillant, she would secretly give birth, kill the baby and hide its body. Convinced of Pierre-Marie's ignorance and innocence in the case, the investigating magistrate ordered him freed without charge.

In the wake of this week's terrible revelations, both villagers and the family's intimates are not only in shock over Cottrez's repeated infanticide, but also the inability of anyone to detect she'd been pregnant numerous times. "We never noticed anything — she was always generous and ready to do anything for her girls," one of Cottrez's daughters, Virginie, said to the regional Voix du Nord paper Friday, noting what a tender and helpful grandmother Cottrez had been. A successful carpenter, Pierre-Marie also served as a municipal counselor, while Cottrez, whom neighbors have described to reporters as friendly, obliging and discreet, worked as a nursing assistant.

Experts suspect that Cottrez suffers from pregnancy denial, a condition in which women either aren't aware of or refuse to acknowledge the fact that they're with child, or simply deny the possibility of having or raising a baby. In the most extreme cases, experts say, new mothers destroy their unwanted babies to restore what they believe is their childless reality. At least six such multiple infanticides have been discovered in France since 2003, involving a handful of the 1,600 to 2,000 French women estimated to suffer from pregnancy denial each year. The condition isn't medically or legally recognized as an illness in France.

That's one reason Cottrez will be tried for homicide whether or not psychological evaluation finds that she experienced pregnancy denial. Meanwhile, Vaillant has dismissed the notion that Cottrez suffered from the condition, noting that she stated herself that "she was perfectly aware of all her pregnancies." Vaillant argues that since Cottrez was lucid before and during the murders, they were premeditated, and therefore she should be tried for "voluntary homicide on minors less than 15 years of age."

In response, some medical and psychological experts — along with Cottrez's lawyer — say that pregnancy denial causes women to carry out unthinkable acts as if they were normal, logical behavior, so Cottrez's seemingly calculated actions could explain — rather than rule out — the condition as a causal factor. They are asking legal officials not to jump to any conclusions about Cottrez's mental state until the evaluation determines whether or not she was in a quasi-schizophrenic state when she killed her babies.

Since the law doesn't recognize pregnancy denial as an illness, the results of Cottrez' psychiatric evaluation will change little in legal terms. But, says her lawyer, another legal detail could make a big difference. Attorney Frank Berton has noted in media reports that Cottrez has dated her acts of infanticide between 1989 and 2006 or 2007 — meaning, he claims, that France's 10-year statute of limitations for felonies may have expired on as many as six of the killings.

Even if she faces trial on just two of the murders, Cottrez could face a maximum life sentence. Or, she could find herself serving the more lenient sentences that judges handed down in two other recent infanticide cases involving pregnancy denial — in 2009, Véronique Courjault was sentenced to eight years for killing three of her own babies, and this past March, Céline Lesage received a sentence of 15 years after killing six of her newborns. However Cottrez's case ends up, France will continue to struggle to both understand and figure out how to deal with such an unimaginable act as a mother killing her newborn children.