Atrocious crimes feature so often in the daily news that they begin to lose their power to shock, but the trial of an Australian woman makes a chilling exception. According to the prosecutor, water polo champion Keli Lane was so determined to be selected for the 2000 Sydney Olympics that she “hid” a pregnancy from everyone and, when her daughter was born, she killed her, buried her, and then went to a wedding.
That was in 1996 when Lane was 21. As a result of various sexual relationships she had already had two abortions and — in moments of better judgement — had two babies adopted out. After each birth she would immediately resume her active sporting, social and sex life. She drank heavily and “kept up with the boys”. She was not, as it happens, selected for the Olympic team.
Now 35, Lane denies killing her child and claims that her then boyfriend took the infant away. Maybe. Hopefully. Because it is very hard to accept that a mother would kill her infant with the cold-blooded casualness the prosecution alleges. And yet, only two weeks ago we heard about a French woman, Dominique Cottrez, who admitted suffocating eight of her newborns and concealing their corpses in the garden and garage of her home. Among similar horror stories in recent years was that of Susan F, a German woman who, over a period of six years, killed three of her newborns and hid them around the house.
The last two examples involved systematic, repetitive acts of infanticide that cannot be put down to post-natal depression and insanity — as in the notorious case of the Texas mother, Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children in the bath one morning in 2001. The phenomenon of deranged mothers killing their children, sometimes in more brutal ways, is well known and is not in the same league as women quietly extinguishing yet another inconvenient birth and then getting on with their lives as though nothing had happened.
With such recent examples of female callousness in mind, newly published research on German women who actively co-operated in the Holocaust — a larger number than formerly thought — comes less as a shocking surprise than another deadening blow to our ideals about women.
American historian Wendy Lower has discovered that, in addition to the women who acted as guards in the concentration camps (up to 5000, or 10 percent of all personnel) thousands of seemingly ordinary German women went voluntarily to the eastern territories where genocide was openly occurring, to help Germanise them and provide services to the local German populations. They included nurses, teachers and welfare workers. “For women from working-class families or farms in Germany, the occupied zones offered an attractive opportunity to advance themselves,” says Lower.
While most did not bloody their own hands, the actions of the 1 or 2 per cent who did seem all the more shocking. The young wife of an SS officer, who had two children of her own, found six Jewish children who seemed to have escaped from a railroad car bound for a camp. She took them home, fed them, then led them into the woods and shot them one by one. Another young woman became notorious among survivors of a Ukrainian ghetto as the Fraulein Hanna who smashed a toddler’s head against a wall and threw children to their deaths from the window of a makeshift hospital.
These women, says Lower, “challenge so deeply our notion” of what constitutes normal female behaviour. Indeed, they do.
Lower puts it down to ideology — the Nazi system “turned everything on its head” — and she is correct, up to a point. But when we consider the keenness of women today to enter the military and serve in the front line, when we think about American Private Lindy England joining male colleagues in tormenting Iraqi prisoners, we are forced to the conclusion that, since the capacity for cruelty and killing exists in women as it does in men, any ideology will do.
Now, there is one ideology today that brings out this streak in women to a truly frightening extent and it has nothing to do with war-mongering, although it has everything to do with dehumanising a certain part of humanity. It is the systematically promoted and officially sanctioned idea that women not only have the right to kill their unborn children, but that it is often the best, most responsible thing they can do. Like shooting Jewish children in the war, it is really for the good of all concerned — even the victims.
If Keli Lane killed her newborn daughter, it was only the next logical step on from what she learned as a teenager in family planning counselling rooms and abortion clinics from the women who staff them. When Dominique Cottrez smothered eight of her babies after she delivered them, was she really doing something morally different from what any abortionist would have done for her before they were born?
How many millions of women today have this kind of blood on their hands? In the United States one in five pregnancies is terminated — a total of 846,181 legally induced abortions in 2006. Since the US Supreme Court created a right to abortion in 1973, around 50 million new human lives have been extinguished in this way. At the same time an estimated 1760 children die each year from severe neglect and abuse, and a quarter of the perpetrators are mothers acting alone; mothers and other women are involved in other child deaths as well.
Given these appalling facts about the behaviour of women, it was amazing to read the response of Courtney E Martin, a young US writer and feminist, to Wendy Lower’s revelations about Nazi women. Martin readily accepts that “women have the capacity to be immoral, malicious and violent — just like the guys” but she has the strangest idea of what constitutes violence. Her examples include: sitting by as women “co-workers are sexually harassed or their neighbours are racially profiled or as the social safety net is cut from under our most vulnerable citizens”; supporting the administration that started the war in Iraq; purchasing products that destroy the environment and exploit third world workers.
For Martin, these are all examples of structural violence in which many women co-operate. But her mixed bag of objective and opinionable evils comes nowhere near the moral gravity of directly killing or consenting to the killing of a child. Her failure to even raise a question about abortion is easily explained, of course, by the centrality of the “right to choose” in mainstream feminism. Martin sees through its simplistic “belief in the goodness of girls and women,” but when it comes to reproductive rights, feminist blinkers are firmly in place.
And yet, it is precisely because of their reproductive role, their capacity to be mothers, that we expect women to be gentler, kinder and even “better” than men — and are shocked when they are not. Gender theorists are trying to persuade us that no such thing as “normal female behaviour” exists, and the Nazi women and the female abortionists seem to prove their point. Substantial numbers — even majorities — of people, however, are as unhappy about the latter as the former. Their noses tell them it’s wrong, it is the world turned upside down.
Nature has put the new human being in the womb and at the breast of a woman, giving vulnerable humanity a message about where it should find protection and nurture. While it is not women’s role exclusively to tend infants (and those in a comparable state, such as the sick and the infirm) it is our job particularly; we are the born experts, generally speaking, and men learn to do it from us.
Not all women will be, physically, mothers; not all mothers will express the maternal role in the same way; but when large numbers of women act directly against it, as they do today, a society should be very worried. One of its foundations is in danger of collapse.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.