Cradles To Coffins

LINDA CHU PREFERRED HER AC-commodations at the Century Apartments, a complex owned by the University of Southern California, to a regular dorm room because, she told the student newspaper last year, ""the residence halls are much more open-door ... you have to get to know people.'' But the privacy Chu valued so much may have been her undoing, police say, enabling the 20-year-old sophomore business major to carry a baby to term and deliver it secretly in her room. On May 7 a USC maintenance worker discovered the body of an infant girl in a Dumpster. After weeks of investigation, authorities say they traced the baby to Chu; they charge that Chu strangled her newborn, then pushed her into a trash chute. Last week Chu was arrested at her parents' home in Illinois; she's currently in a Chicago jail fighting extradition to California.

Her case was the latest in a shocking string of newborn homicides that have made headlines across the country. In New Jersey, 18-year-old Melissa Drexler was charged with murder last week after delivering her infant son in a bathroom stall during her senior prom and then allegedly choking him to death before tossing him into the garbage. Two days later Los Angeles sheriff's deputies charged 19-year-old Jennifer Garcia with killing her newborn baby girl and then dumping her in a garbage can outside her home in a middle-class suburb. Last November Amy Grossberg, an 18-year-old college freshman, and her boyfriend, Brian Peterson, also 18, were charged with killing their newborn son and leaving his body in a trash bin.

Is it murder or madness? And who is to blame? Despite the recent spate of sensational stories, these homicides - called neonaticides by law-enforcement officials - are actually quite rare. In 1995, the last year for which such federal statistics are available, 54 infants were murdered in their first week of life - most within 24 hours of birth, according to researchers' estimates. The number of deaths hasn't changed significantly in recent years. In fact, experts say killing newborns was more common 30 years ago, before abortion became legal. ""There's no question that abortion prevents - or substitutes for - a lot of these infanticides,'' says University of Georgia demographer Everett Lee, who has analyzed decades of statistics on such cases. ""Now there are very few of these deaths, but the great majority of them make the newspapers.''

Mothers who kill newborns are typically young and unmarried, says Phillip Resnick, a psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University who has studied infanticide for decades, and their motivation is usually very different from that of women who kill their older children. ""The mother who kills her older child is being brutal in the short term,'' says Resnick, but she often believes she is acting out of altruism, ""to deliver the child to heaven and a better life.'' The mother who kills a newborn, he says, ""doesn't see it as a human or a child... They think of it as a foreign body that has passed through them.''

The crime cuts across all races and economic classes; a majority of the victims are white, but black babies suffer in disproportionate numbers. ""Some of these girls have high expectations of themselves,'' says Resnick. ""Some are college bound, and they see pregnancy as very much interfering with their plans.'' Others feel overwhelmed by shame; having their family and friends find out they are pregnant seems far worse than hiding and then disposing of the baby - either by killing it outright or by simply abandoning it after birth.

Researchers say many of the mothers construct elaborate psychological mechanisms to convince themselves - and others close to them - that they could not possibly be pregnant. For months they manage to overlook or conceal seemingly incontrovertible evidence - no menstrual periods, a rapidly expanding abdomen, morning sickness. They wear baggy clothes and may gain weight to disguise their chang- ing shapes.

In some cases, the self-delusion continues right up to the moment of birth. These women, says Alexander Obolsky, a forensic psychiatrist at Northwestern University, are in what he describes as ""psychotic denial'' brought on by the pressure of keeping such a momentous secret. ""Pregnancy is a very stressful time when you need a lot of support from others,'' he says. ""If you are totally alone, the levels of stress are much higher.'' But in other cases, the mothers eventually admit, if only to themselves, that they are indeed about to have a child. These women, Obolsky believes, are often ""cold and uncaring and basically antisocial people who aren't particularly concerned about the life and rights of their own children. They kill because it's convenient for them. ''

Others think this coldness is also a symptom of severe mental illness akin to multiple-personality disorder. Many of the women ""dissociate,'' feeling as if removed from their bodies during labor and birth. ""They say things like "I watched myself de- liver the baby','' says Margaret Spinelli, a psychiatrist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York who evaluated nine such mothers. ""They would say, "I don't think I felt pain, but I must have felt pain be- cause I remember hearing myself scream'.''

Prosecuting these women can be tricky. Grand juries often refuse to indict out of sympathy for a young woman caught in a tragic situation who appears to pose no continuing threat to society. When there is an indictment, conviction can be elusive. In order to establish homicide, prosecutors have to prove that the baby actually lived after birth - how- ever briefly. If, as in the case of Drexler's son, efforts were made to revive the child through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, defense lawyers may claim that the child was born dead and the air in its lungs came from rescue attempts.

Judicial systems in other countries treat neonaticide very differently. In England, for example, the mothers are assumed to be mentally ill; the worst crime they can be convicted of is manslaughter. In the United States, judges seldom give long sentences in these cases. Most of the convicted women end up with suspended sentences or on probation. Their punishments, like their pregnancies, are hidden, but they may never come to term.

When oral contraception and abortion were legalized, the number of infant murders decreased.

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