The other week, BuzzFeed published an investigation of what it deemed “grotesque injustice”: cases in which battered women were prosecuted and incarcerated for permitting or enabling child abuse—after their abusive boyfriends or husbands had beaten and murdered their children.
The exposé was not merely sympathetic to these women. It portrayed them as helpless victims, lamenting the many who had “suffered” this fate. The piece was unabashed advocacy—and on behalf of women whom prosecutors, judges, and juries had decided to send to jail for complicity in the murder of their own children despite the anguish of each woman’s story. In a sick twist, the tragedy of the real victims in these stories—the children who suffered horrible, violent deaths that their mothers did little to nothing to prevent—was somehow overshadowed by the victimhood of mothers who survived to tell the police how they really had tried to do something.
“Looking back over the past decade,” wrote Alex Campbell, “BuzzFeed News identified 28 mothers in 11 states sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children.” Then Campbell played his trump card: “In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.”
No one would belittle the plight of women in abusive relationships; of course battered women deserve our sympathy and concern…until all of our sympathy is gone because there is a dead two-year-old who might be alive today if his mother has just called the police like her friend told her. To absolve these women of their responsibility is morally bankrupt, but of a piece with a modern liberalism that sees patriarchy and colonialism and racism as exculpatory factors for so many crimes and atrocities.
Doesn’t Anyone Care About Abused Children?
I’m a woman and, far from sympathizing with these women, all I could think was how could anyone, much less an innocent child’s mother, sit by and watch such sickening violence inflicted on that child and not be compelled to intervene, no matter what the cost? And how could we as a society be expected to condone inaction that leads to the death of a toddler?
This is not an irrational or crazy response—it seems more than a few jurors shared that view, and presumably those juries included men and women, liberals and conservatives. Moreover, in terms of legal process, it is hardly shocking. Laws often make people who are involved in a murder or other violent crime such as child-beating culpable for that violence along with the actual abuser. A mother who knowingly does nothing while her boyfriend hurts her child is legally responsible for that abdication of her duties—and a father would be, as well.
One of the cases centered on a woman who left her three-year-old son alone for hours in an apartment with her boyfriend immediately after he had brutally whipped the toddler, hurled him against a wall, and pressed his foot into the little boy’s chest—all in the mother’s presence, before locking her out of the apartment.
The mother’s reaction? She left her child trapped with his abuser, refused to call the police despite a friend’s repeated urging to do so, and spent the day shopping at grocery and beauty stores while her boyfriend continued to brutally torture her son. At her sentencing hearing, she testified that her top priority had been not to remove her child from harm or prevent further abuse, but “to calm her boyfriend down.”
To absolve this woman of any responsibility for this tragedy would mean absolving women of the maternal obligation to nurture and protect their children—children who in this case will suffer most the consequences of their mothers’ inaction.
Trivializing Mothers’ Responsibilities Is No Small Matter, Either
Absolving these women also trivializes the vocation of motherhood. It undermines the special bond between mothers and their children—which is not the same as the bond between fathers and their children—and overlooks entirely the transcendent aspect of motherhood (or parenthood), the beautiful and poignant idea that in having children, a parent becomes selfless.
More than just a moral imperative to care for children, the idea of an innate maternal instinct is also grounded in science. A 2008 study conducted by scientists in Tokyo determined that the maternal instinct to protect one’s child is wired into the brain. Interestingly, a 2012 neurological study indicated that photos of baby’s faces trigger biological responses, i.e. specific brain activity, even in childless adults, suggesting a “deeply embedded” response to care for children.
I understand, as BuzzFeed noted, that “victims of domestic violence often suffer ongoing trauma, meaning that the brain does not have time to recover the way it does from a one-off traumatic event,” but I find it hard to believe that such trauma would eradicate a mother’s biological instinct to protect her child. Even if it did, do we absolve a child molester because he was molested as a child? Do we absolve a child abuser because his mother beat him? Trauma may be a mitigating factor, but that’s why we have juries—and in these cases it seems clear they considered those facts and voted to convict despite them.
Campbell’s apologia for mothers who permit child abuse also glosses over women’s ability to make difficult choices. Putting a child’s needs before her own is one of the fundamental realities all mothers face, and even battered women who fear retaliation from their abusive partners have the option to leave for the sake of their children. Campbell quoted prosecutor Carmen White as saying that “if a violent partner threatened her child” she would “‘sacrifice [her] life 10 times out of 10.’” Easier said than done? Maybe—but I doubt society is quite ready to appoint Buzzfeed as judge and jury in these cases.
All of these women had choices. The Left’s continual drive to cast women as victims and prisoners of our own circumstances is demeaning and condescending, not to mention incompatible with any attempt to empower women.
Women have the incredible ability to bring life into the world. The bonds of motherhood should not be taken lightly, and certainly should not be dismissed in favor of stylish liberal activism. The capacity to give birth comes with a weighty responsibility to cherish and care for our children, whatever the cost. And if we utterly fail in that duty, we should not expect, let alone demand, society to abstain from judgment.