Mary Welstead, CAP Fellow Harvard Law School; Visiting Professor in Family Law University of Buckingham
In June 2019, a mother received a life sentence for the murder of her new-born baby and, in May 2021, the Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal. The decisions illustrate the problematic nature of the defences, available to women who kill their babies, against a charge of murder.
The mother gave birth, alone, during the night in an outside lavatory on her parents’ farm. She left the baby’s injured body hidden in undergrowth. Three days later, on admission to hospital, she revealed the baby’s hiding place and was charged with murder.
A consultant psychiatrist reported that giving birth had disturbed the balance of the mother’s mind sufficient to permit the defence of infanticide and/or diminished responsibility. However, he changed his mind after hearing the mother give evidence, and her defence fell apart.
On appeal, the Appeal Court declined to consider retrospective evidence from a specialist in female psychiatric disorders who found that, when she gave birth, the mother was depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress.
The case raises questions about the need for reform of the law relating to baby killing. Any woman who gives birth alone, terrified, and in inappropriate surroundings, is probably mentally unbalanced; she requires help rather than life imprisonment.