Skip to content


Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill

Edited by Margaret G. Spinelli, M.D.

  • ISBN 978-1-58562-097-5
  • Item #62097
Winner of the 2004 Manfred S. Guttmacher Award

View Pricing

List Price

APA Members

20% off

APA Resident-Fellow Members

25% off

Buying In Canada or Europe?


Maternal infanticide, or the murder of a child in its first year of life by its mother, elicits sorrow, anger, horror, and outrage. But the perpetrator is often a victim, too.

The editor of this revealing work asks us to reach beyond rage, stretch the limits of compassion, and enter the minds of mothers who kill their babies—with the hope that advancing the knowledge base and stimulating inquiry in this neglected area of maternal-infant research will save young lives.

Written to help remedy today's dearth of up-to-date, research-based literature, this unique volume brings together a multidisciplinary group of 17 experts—scholars, clinicians, researchers, clinical and forensic psychiatrists, pediatric psychoanalysts, attorneys, and an epidemiologist—who focus on the psychiatric perspective of this tragic cause of infant death.

This comprehensive, practical work is organized into four parts for easy reference:

  • Part I presents historical and epidemiological data, including a compelling discussion of the contrasting legal views of infanticide in the United States, United Kingdom, and other Western countries, a review of the latest statistics on maternal infanticide, and a discussion of the problems of underreporting and the lack of available documentation.
  • Part II covers the psychiatric, psychological, cultural, and biological underpinnings of infanticide, detailing how to identify, evaluate, and treat postpartum psychiatric disorders. The authors explore clinical diagnosis, symptom recognition, risk factors, biological precipitants, and alternative motives, such as cultural infanticide. Chapter 3, developed to assist the attorney or mental health professional in understanding the implications of postpartum psychiatric illness as they relate to infanticide, presents a sensitive and thorough inquiry into infanticidal ideation.
  • Part III focuses on contemporary legislation, criminal defenses, and disparate treatment in U.S. law and compares U.S. law with the U.K.'s model of probation and treatment. Chapter 8 is an especially useful resource for the attorney or expert psychiatric witness preparing for an infanticide/neonaticide case in the criminal court system.
  • Part IV discusses clinical experience with mothers as perpetrators and countertransference in therapy, the range of mother-infant interactions (from healthy to pathological), and methods of early intervention and prevention.

This balanced perspective on a highly emotional issue will find a wide audience among psychiatric and medical professionals (child, clinical, and forensic psychiatrists and psychologists; social workers; obstetricians/gynecologists and midwives; nurses; and pediatricians), legal professionals (judges, attorneys, law students), public health professionals, and interested laypersons.


  • Contributors
  • Introduction
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I: Epidemiology and Historical Legal Statutes
  • Chapter 1. A Brief History of Infanticide and the Law
  • Chapter 2. Epidemiology of Infanticide
  • Part II: Biopsychosocial and Cultural Perspectives on Infanticide
  • Chapter 3. Postpartum Disorders: Phenomenology, Treatment Approaches, and Relationship to Infanticide
  • Chapter 4. Neurohormonal Aspects of Postpartum Depression and Psychosis
  • Chapter 5. Denial of Pregnancy
  • Chapter 6. Neonaticide: A Systematic Investigation of 17 Cases
  • Chapter 7. Culture, Scarcity, and Maternal Thinking
  • Part III: Contemporary Legislation
  • Chapter 8. Criminal Defense in Cases of Infanticide and Neonaticide
  • Chapter 9. Medical and Legal Dilemmas of Postpartum Psychiatric Disorders
  • Chapter 10. Infanticide in Britain
  • Part IV: Treatment and Prevention
  • Chapter 11. How Could Anyone Do That?: A Therapist's Struggle With Countertransference
  • Chapter 12. The Mother-Infant Relationship: From Normality to Pathology
  • Chapter 13. The Promise of Saved Lives: Recognition, Prevention, and Rehabilitation
  • Index

About the Authors

Margaret G. Spinelli, M.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Director of the Maternal Mental Health Program at New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York, New York.

Margaret Spinelli has gathered a group of experts to examine the subject of maternal infanticide from biologic, psychosocial, legal, and cultural perspectives. Her book handles the material sensitively, with an eye toward prevention. It also serves as a compendium of knowledge to aid mental health providers in diagnosing and treating psychiatric disorders related to infanticide, while assisting experts involved in the legal defense of women charged with the crime. . . . Because so many personal and societal taboos must be overcome in order to kill one's own child, this central question begs for an answer: What is it about the biological and psychosocial factors that lead these women to cross the boundary from violent impulse to action? In the end, however, this excellent book leaves the readers well equipped to ponder this question themselves.—Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D., The New England Journal of Medicine

[I]t is truly outstanding, a must read for clinicians in both psychiatry and obstetrics, as well as forensic psychiatrists, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. What sets this text apart is that it goes well beyond a discussion of the phenomenon of infanticide to formulation of plans of prevention and management for at-risk mothers and children, making this a useful resource for anyone involved in the mental health of mothers and their young children.—Keith A. Caruso, M.D., Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8/1/2003

This new book is essential reading for any lawyer handling an infanticide case. This volume is the first book to cross the line between the mental health professional and the lawyer on this subject. It is easy for the lawyer to read, has loads of references for further research and most importantly lets you know who to contact to continue the educational process. Its hard to believe that a lawyer could be considered competent to handle one of these cases without the information in Dr. Spinelli's new book.—Michael G. Dowd, Criminal Defense Attorney

This is the first book ever to provide a comprehensive and integrative overview of such a delicate topic. The image of a mother killing her own child is to many unthinkable. Dr. Spinelli, who herself has done some seminal work in the field of infanticide, has assembled an excellent cadre of experts to author chapters which cover the broad spectrum of this conundrum from the biopsychosocial to the medicolegal. This book will become the bench mark text for those interested in women's mental health and beyond.—Meir Steiner, M.D., Ph.D., F.R.C.P.C., Professor Psychiatry & Behav Neuroscience & Obstetrics & Gynecology, McMaster Univ; Director Research, Dept Psychiatry; Director, Women's Health Concerns Clinic

This book is very timely and addresses an important, and little understood, subject. The authors, all of whom are clearly very well informed and very thoughtful about the events that are the focus of the book, write about a wide variety of relevant issues in a systematic, scholarly, informative, and readable manner. This book should appeal to, and be read by, members of many different professional groups who are likely to come in contact with mothers either before or after they have thought about or committed infanticide. One can only hope that better awareness of the issues will lead to actions and decisions on the behalf of the women and their children that will be more helpful to them than has often been the case in the past.—Jean Endicott, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York, New York

Dr. Spinelli has composed a scholarly piece on a difficult subject. It brings together scientific and biopsychosocial data in a clear and informative way. This will be a seminal addition to the libraries of all professionals who care for women through all stages of their lives.—Orli Etingin, M.D., Vice Chairman, Dept of Medicine; Lisa & Sanford Ehrenkranz Professor Clinical Medicine, Weill Medical College Cornell Univ; Attending Physician, New York Presbyterian Hospital

Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill brings together in one place the newest scholarship—legal, medical, and psychosocial—toward an understanding of the psychiatric defense for women who kill their infants. The information about post-partum psychiatric disorders in women is absolutely up-to-date and useful for any clinician who treats women of child-bearing age. The book is a key text for any professional working in the legal, law enforcement, social service, or medical fields who deals with women accused of harming their babies. In addition, the book addresses head-on the shocking inequities in the legal system in the United States for women accused of child murder. Dr. Spinelli and her contributors make a powerful argument for reform based on human rights. A courageous and masterful book.—Jennifer Downey, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

We do recommend this book to clinicians treating women of childbearing age and to attorneys seeking to increase their knowledge about perinatal mental illnesses.—Phillip J. Resnick, M.D., and Susan Hatters-Friedman, M.D., Psychiatric Services, 8/1/2003

Related Products

Become an APA Member
Join Now