Soundings

Wendy Shalit
Ill Disposed
Autumn 1997

Of all the euphemisms designed to cloak the rawest of realities, none is quite so mendacious as the up-to-the-minute use of the word "disposal." In the nineties, it means infanticide.

Exhibit A: The September issue of New Woman, where author David France catalogues the recent rash of teens who have "disposed" of their newborns and notes bewilderedly, "each day seems to bring another case." There is Amy Grossberg; there is Rebecca Hopfer; there is Melissa Drexler—the list goes on and on. Each disposal is "so spontaneous, so impulsive, that even the perpetrators are caught off guard by it," France writes. Hence France's "exclusive report": to inquire, "Why was disposal the only thought that occurred to them?" And also: "Why hadn't they sought a legal abortion?"

Each year, France reports, more than "250 babies are self-delivered and then dispatched directly to garbage bags and rivers, toilet bowls and trash receptacles." But why?

That the rise of dispatching and disposing might have something to do with the cheapening of human life is a notion France dismisses out of hand. For life these days is not as cheap as it should be, thanks to the interference of some: "Many people think the recent cases [of infanticide] have to do with the heated-up battle over reproductive counseling, . . . the stridency of the sex-education battlefield, the fervent sidewalk wars in front of clinics." If benighted right-to-lifers keep condom giveaways out of the schools, what other choice does a teen have?

France also traces the roots of newborn disposal to excessive parenting. Many experts find that girls inclined to "dispose" are "overregulated," which means that "they strive excessively to please others and to fit in." If you are puzzled as to how "overregulating" parents could fail to notice that their daughter is nine months pregnant, or why a teen so eager to please her parents would opt for the sex-and-murder route, we luckily have experts to clear away the muddle.

The first expert France calls in is Susan Crimmins, director of the Institute on Trauma and Violence in New York City. She is outraged over those who fail to understand the disposers: "When people say these women are monsters, I don't believe that for a second. They are simply getting rid of the symptoms of their pain, and those symptoms happen to be a newborn child."

Priscilla Smith, who as staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy also knows what's what with the disposers, couldn't agree more. That's why she prefers to think of infanticide as a kind of "self-abortion," along the lines of pregnant women who fire gunshots into their bellies. "Infanticide is not all that different [from these self-administered abortions]," Smith explains. But if infanticide is abortion, does that make abortion infanticide?

Well, never mind. The important thing to remember is that disposing is "not a modern dilemma" but an ancient practice with a venerable legacy. "It was so common in ancient Greece," author France reminds us, "that the phenomenon was given a name: exposure." Then University of Wisconsin history professor Linda Gordon, adds: "Historically, infanticide was occasionally allowed because it was a matter of survival. . . . In nomadic societies especially, infanticide was practiced at times because a person realistically can only carry one child at a time." Same thing with our overregulated teens who dispose. Often "it's either you or the baby," Gordon points out.

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