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New life for postpartum depression legislation

Posted Mar 22 2009 3:20pm
Featured Blogger

Perinatal Pro is creating a state-by-state listing of ALL regional organizations, healthcare facilities, entities, blogs, websites, consortias and public and private agencies who wish to go on-record in support of critical postpartum legislation. If you would like to be added to the listing, please email me at It will be updated several times a week. Please note, this listing is public and will be sent to Congress the week of MOTHERS Day.

Here's the blog:

Great news from Randy Gibbs, Executive Director of Jenny’s Light, brother of Jennifer Gibbs and uncle of Graham Gibbs, that this amazing organization is endorsing the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act.

Based in Minnesota, Jenny’s Light is a not-for-profit organization created by the families of Jennifer and Graham Gibbs Bankston in response to their tragic, unnecessary deaths from postpartum illnesses. The mission of Jenny’s Light is to improve and save lives by increasing awareness of all perinatal mood disorders including postpartum depression.

As support for the legislation widens and deepens among our nation’s professional and non profit organizations, we would also like to hear from regional, public and private entities who wish to go on record in support of this legislation. Perinatal Pro intends to create a new state by state listing on this website of all organizations, blogs, consortia, websites and/or practices who want to proclaim their support for this legislation. We need to intensify our message to Congress that investment in America’s mothers and infants must remain a top priority, especially amidst challenging times which create additional stressors for our nation’s families.

2007 was a year of record births in this country at over 4.4 million. We need to be sure the systems are in place to support these mothers, infants and families, by raising awareness, educating providers and establishing accessible help networks in every community across America.

If you would like to see your organization listed here, please email me with the name and contact person in your organization.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, please sign the petition in support of The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act.


Representative Jessica Farrar has introduced a new bill to the Texas Legislature which would limit jail time for mothers who commit infanticide while suffering from postpartum psychosis. While enactment of this bill does not replace or affect the appropriate use of the insanity defense for such crimes – a defense which can eliminate jail time while mandating appropriate psychological treatment - it would limit jail time during the penalty phase of a trial for infanticide presented under manslaughter or murder charges. The option would apply to mothers deemed to have been under the influence of a pregnancy or lactation related mood disorder within 12 months of giving birth.

George Parnham, the Houston based attorney who defended Andrea Yates, helped draft the legislation and I was honored to serve as an advocacy consultant. You can read the story which broke in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News by Wendy Hundley.

There is one misquote in the article that is important to correct. Instead of “for every mother who receives treatment, there are ten who are in jail”, that statement should have read, “For every mother whose trial results in psychological treatment only, there are ten who may receive jail time under the current legal mandates”.

Providing this new option to jurors during the penalty phase following conviction would offer an opportunity to reduce jail time and increase likelihood of psychological treatment – a far more appropriate response. By its very existence this legal option would further decriminalize acts related to maternal mental illness, validate the suffering of these mothers and help turn the tide from ignorance to understanding and appropriate treatment.

While many other civilized countries in the world already have an infanticide defense that does NOT include jail time, the United States continues to lag behind in our legal and social understanding of these disorders. Efforts are underway on the state and federal level, such as The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act, to initiate public awareness campaigns, conduct more research and offer assessment, support and screening to mothers during and after pregnancy. The bill was reintroduced to the 111th Congress by U. S. Senator Robert Menendez in the senate and Congressman Bobby L. Rush in the House of Representatives this past January.

Postpartum psychosis is an extremely rare (less than 1 in a thousand) condition in which a mother may be susceptible to “command hallucinations”, i.e. auditory or visual hallucinations which may order her to kill her children in order to save them and her family or prevent evil. This condition presents a true psychological emergency and immediate treatment is required to prevent the possible advancement of the illness that could result in tragedy.

Because such psychotic hallucinations may continue for days at a time and result in the planning of death, it is difficult for a considering jury to believe the mother is truly insane feeling that “insane people are not logical and could not execute a step by step plan”. It is this misunderstanding of the course and content of psychotic illness which often brings such outrage and condemnation to the convicted mother during penalty phase of deliberating jurors, resulting in jail terms equivalent to that for intentional murder or manslaughter.

One method of determining psychosis is a mother’s own response to such troubling thoughts, feelings and urges. A woman with the more common postpartum depression, for example, may have thoughts of harming her baby or herself, or wishing to give the baby up for adoption, or wishing it had never been born, but she is deeply troubled and repulsed by these feelings and usually does not act on them. These mothers can find help and relief from intrusive or obsessional ideas through psychotherapy, medication, social support or all three together. On the other hand, a woman with the extremely rare form of postpartum psychosis believes these hallucinations are real, that the commands must be followed and is therefore more likely to act on such thoughts.

The proposed bill is not perfect. It would be preferable that psychological help and treatment be the only “penalty” for the mother who creates a crime while suffering from the severe incapacitation of a pregnancy related mental illness. But its submission to the Texas legislature marks a critical first step toward ending ignorance and acknowledging the reality, characteristics and attributions of postpartum mood disorders to nation of lawmakers and citizens who often have great difficulty accepting more realistic concepts of culpability in mentally ill mothers.

Many thanks to Representative Jessica Farrar and attorney George Parnham - both members of the President’s Advisory Council of Postpartum Support International, for continuing to champion legal process and precedents for women suffering from postpartum illnesses. It takes great strength of character and forceful commitment to weather storms of public outcry that may emerge as a nation searches its soul and moves toward empathic understanding of maternal mental illness.
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