OTI Online
Spring 1997

Fatal Denial?
by Merle Hoffman


The tragic case of Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson


It was just another baby in the garbage, tossed away with the other leftovers of a gluttonous society. Another baby, wrapped in plastic, that quintessential American product, postmodern version of swaddling clothes -- soft, malleable, enfolding the contours of little arms and legs -- so adaptable to the moment. Plastic -- such a poignant blanket for all those little ones.

On November 12, 1996, the Comfort Inn, an inexpensive motel in Delaware, held no such thing for Amy Grossberg and Brian C. Peterson, Jr., the two high-school sweethearts charged with intentionally killing their newborn son and abandoning him in a Dumpster. No comfort for those two who were "supposed" to know -- to know better, to know what to do and not to do.

They were, after all, educated, upper-middle-class kids, college freshmen, raised in the wealthy suburbs of Bergen County among large homes and country clubs. She was a first-year art student, and he had been co-captain of the high-school soccer team. They had options; they had choices. Were there no abortion clinics? No adoption agencies? No friends to call on or parents who would sit down and "dialogue?"

With all her privilege, money, education and whiteness, Amy Grossberg shared something with all the other young, but not-so-privileged girls I see at Choices every day coming in for second-trimester abortions all wide-eyed and terrified -- hit hard by a reality that wasn't supposed to happen.

Maybe they're just late, they think. Their periods were irregular anyway. But suddenly it's five months, then six. They're expecting miracles to happen, their stomachs (damn them) to stop protruding. Waiting, waiting to be rescued. That's the miracle, the epiphany they long for. "He'll marry me." "He'll come back." "I'll wake up and not be pregnant anymore." According to Brian Peterson's attorney, Joseph Hurley, Amy Grossberg was "totally concerned with not letting her mom find out about the pregnancy. There was an unwillingness to let parents know about something they were ashamed of."

What actually happened after that baby was born may never be completely known. What has been reported is that Peterson told police that he placed a living baby in a trash bag and put it in a Dumpster.

According to his lawyers, it was a delivery gone terribly wrong. The authorities, however, have charged the two with first-degree murder.

"Neonaticide," the killing of newborns within hours of birth, is currently on the decline in the United States because of the availability of birth control and abortion. Getting accurate statistics is difficult, but there may be about 250 a year, according to Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve Medical School, who coined the term in 1970.

Neonaticides are typically committed by isolated young women in severe denial of their pregnancies. The killing occurs when the reality of their biology overcomes the illusions of their psychology, and they find themselves in some dorm, toilet or waiting room giving birth to an infant whose cries finally crack their defenses.

Recognizing these sorts of circumstances, England has had an infanticide law since 1922 providing that mothers who kill babies who are up to a year old face manslaughter, not murder charges, according to The New York Times. These women are then given psychiatric care and rarely serve prison terms. American law, on the other hand, makes no such differentiation "regardless of whether [the victims] are one second or 50 years old," according to Joshua Dresler, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.

Resnick believes that by desperately denying their pregnancies until the moment of delivery such women have mentally protected themselves from bonding with their fetuses. "This is a foreign body going through her, not a baby, and the bonding never occurs," he says. "She doesn't think of it as her child, but as an object to get rid of." It haunts us, this ridding of an "object," this lurid story of two young lovers and the brutal death of an infant. But the morality tales now being woven from this tragedy -- the cynical political purposes to which it is being put -- are purely tactical and strategic.

Anti-abortion conservatives are manipulating the Grossberg-Peterson case to create a rhetorical smog that posits a slippery slope with no differentiation between neonaticide and abortion. They conflate this death with the political hot-button issue of "partial birth abortion" until we are left with only a description of an allegedly murdered infant (neonaticide) and a grisly third-trimester abortion procedure (a rare, difficult, medically necessary and legal surgery).

Why have we turned Peterson and Grossberg into "international monsters" when infanticide is the law of the land?, asks one of these manipulators, Ray Kerrison in the New York Post. "Police say the baby in Delaware suffered head injuries in his death. Was he struck on the head to kill him before being dispatched to the garbage bin? If so, is that any worse than piercing the baby's skull, only seconds from birth, with scissors and suctioning out its brain?" He goes further in his analogy to abortion by saying that what makes the Delaware killing so "repugnant is the apparent motive -- convenience."

Convenience: the ultimate epithet. For anti-abortionists, having "convenience abortions" is the greatest sin. How dare a woman or girl make a decision that puts herself, her life, her current family needs before a fetus? How dare she? True believers demand the primacy of the fetus -- and the diminution or even death of the woman. Only if a woman is a victim or rape or incest -- and not even then, for some fundamentalists -- should a woman be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.

And in the same vein of melding abortion with neonaticide, infanticide and murder, the National Review asks whether what the pair is accused of doing is so much more heinous than what a doctor might have done a few hours earlier. They quote George Will, the conservative columnist, as delivering the "best line" on the case: "Could Delaware choose to execute the two by inserting scissors at the base of their skulls, opening the scissors, inserting suction tubes and suctioning out their brains? Of course not. The Constitution forbids choosing cruel and unusual punishments."

In a world of sound bytes, this may seem a natural argument and a strong debating point. One could just as easily respond that this case is the best argument yet for safe, legal abortion. But that response is just as simplistic and deceiving.

A late-term abortion is not neonaticide.

A child living outside the mother's body is not a fetus within her.

In fact, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973, differentiated among the stages of fetal life, delineating a compelling state interest in the survival of the fetus in the third trimester as opposed to the first. In the first trimester, abortion is a decision between a woman and her physician; in the second, the state has the right to regulate; and in the third trimester, abortion is permitted only to save the life of the mother.

This transcendent right of women's reproductive freedom codified by nuanced federal law is what some segments of society find so difficult to handle. With pregnancy women take the naming of reality into their own hands, including the question of whether or not it is a life and what meaning is to be given to that life. They either welcome it as a baby or experience it as a burden -- and then they choose either to let the pregnancy continue or to interrupt it. In making the choice of abortion, women not only choose to terminate a pregnancy, they choose to define it.

This power of naming and defining one's perception of a pregnancy is the essence of the abortion decision and informs its ethics. It is also at the core of much of the anti-abortion attack on the "inconsistency" of pro-choice language and philosophy -- the disingenuousness, they say, of pro-choice proponents who "call it a fetus" when they don't want it and "call it a baby" when they do.

Arguing that the Peterson-Grossberg case is merely an extension of a late-term abortion is a particularly insidious style of political spin. It is similar to the arguments that fetuses are analogous to Jews during the Holocaust or blacks during slavery. By extension of this argument, women who choose abortions are either Nazis or slave-owners. But fetuses are not babies -- nor are they Jews in Auschwitz or slaves on plantations. The right to legal, safe abortion, to reproductive freedom, is the fundamental civil right that forms the core of women's personhood and their ability to function as full citizens in society. It is not Nazi genocide, Jim Crow or a political payoff.

Neonaticide is not the same as abortion, and this tragic case should not be manipulated as a another political tool in the abortion wars. These young mothers -- desperate, driven, often pathologically depressed, their victims often hours old with umbilical cords still attached -- are in a different category altogether. It is, however, also time to consider a different moral response to, and legal definition of, these sad cases.

Amy Grossberg didn't name her fetus as "baby" while she was pregnant or after she gave birth. Perhaps in the quiet of her cell and the silent terror of her aloneness she names it now. Grossberg could indeed have avoided her terrible fate, and that of her son, if she had aborted early in the pregnancy. But that would have required facing reality. And like so many other young girls she took her time -- she wasn't sure, couldn't decide, was too ashamed, thought it would go away.

Grossberg was not alone in her magical thinking. She was educated in a society in which the objectification, medicalization and commercialization of sexuality has led to an "epidemic" of teen age pregnancies. Her story is another lesson for liberal optimists who think that mass education is the antidote to this epidemic. Media sound bytes on the dangers of unplanned pregnancy and the failure rates of specific types of birth control are no bulwark against the powerful influence of desire, impulsivity, and the youthful sense of invulnerability. Nor are they a protection against the lack of self-determination and sexual empowerment that plague many young girls and women.

The public reaction to Brian Peterson has been interesting. Wearing a bulletproof vest when he surrendered to the FBI, he had to face a crowd taunting him with cries of "baby killer" and "murder." But even as this was happening, a young woman who identified herself only as Jennifer cried out, "Brian, it will be OK. Brian, you are in my prayers." As public sympathy for Peterson mounted, a minister worried to the press that Peterson not only killed his baby, but also his future. Young men always have futures to kill. Women have to live with their pasts. I have yet to read about anyone praying out loud for Amy Grossberg.

The New York Times notes that the case of Grossberg and Peterson has "confounded the experts" because Peterson is an exception to the deadly rule that neonaticides are almost always committed by panicked young women and girls abandoned to their fates by men who have discarded them.

Peterson did not abandon Grossberg. He was with her when they allegedly murdered their newborn son and is with her now as they stand charged with murder and facing life imprisonment or the death penalty. Perhaps there is some "comfort" in that after all.


MERLE HOFFMAN is Publisher/Editor-In-Chief of On The Issues magazine, and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc. and Choices Mental Health Center.


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