The nightmare phenomenon of fetal abduction

There are some crimes which are almost too shocking to contemplate, felonies which almost defy our capacity to understand the motives of their perpetrators. And without a doubt, fetal abduction is one of them. Sadly, it’s almost exactly as horrible and inhumane as it sounds: a morbid breed of child abduction, where pregnant women are drugged and their unborn children extracted from the womb via a cesarean section. In the small number of reported cases, few pregnant victims and about half of their fetuses have survived.

For many mothers or pregnant women, this nightmare scenario is the ultimate maternal anxiety. It sounds like something conjured up by a tasteless author of gory horror movies. But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that this phenomenon is real.

What kind of person would go to such grisly lengths to steal a baby that hadn’t even been born yet? Profiles of these individuals are interesting in themselves. Criminologists believe that fetal abductors share a similar psychology with traditional child kidnappers, who are often women who yearn to rear and nurture a child, even at the expense of the child’s own wellbeing. They are typically women who have experienced a profound trauma related to childrearing or maternity: often they are infertile are incapable of conceiving a child with a sexual partner, or have experienced a number of miscarriages.

As a result of these negative experiences, they can develop an obsession around babies and pregnancy, and can even experience feelings of shame and inadequacy as a result of their own childlessness. They can romanticise pregnancy and fantasise about labour and delivery. Some might lie to their inner circle or friends, relations and co-workers that they are pregnant, and go to absurd lengths in order to maintain the puerperal masquerade. Some intentionally put on weight by overeating in order to disguise their flat stomachs and make their body shape more ambiguous, while others go so far as to wear a fake prosthesis in order to appear pregnant. They may mentally prepare themselves for a reality that was all but impossible, going so far as to buy baby clothes, attend baby showers and spend hours decorating rooms in their homes, assembling cribs and choosing favourite names.

In some cases, however, the pressure to achieve pregnancy is motivated by external, societal factors. Several of the female perpetrators came from conservative, religious backgrounds in which the value of a woman was measured by her childrearing, and where being a stay-at-home mom was considered de rigueur for any adult lady. Parents or family members may have passive-aggressively shamed these people into thinking that they were worthless without children, or put pressure on the couple in the hopes that a faked pregnancy would be able to save an ailing relationship. These culprits are women whose feminine identity and fundamental sense of self are inextricably bound up with fertility and natality.

Cathy Nahirny, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stated in 2007 that: “Many times the abductor fakes a pregnancy and when it is time to deliver the baby, must abduct someone else’s child. Because she has already announced to her male partner that she’s pregnant, the relationship may be warming up. She’s afraid to tell him she has had a miscarriage. She has it in her head [that] he’s going to leave.”

Psychologist Theresa Porter added: “These women don’t simply want a baby; they need one in order to secure all the rewards and privileges of motherhood. These women so desired the attention, care and love that society gives pregnant women and new mothers that they were willing to kill to obtain it.”

In the past, fetal abductors would resort to baby-snatching. They would use a combination of guile and manipulation in order to infiltrate the maternity wards of hospitals. Some would train as nurses or hospital staff in order to gain access to vulnerable newborn babies and others would memorise the layout of the building to the most minute detail before breaking in and making off with the child. A spate of child abductions in the United States in the early 90s forced hospitals to take stricter measures when it came to the well-being of infants, but this crackdown meant that those afflicted with an extreme case of maternal envy had to resort to visceral, potentially-murderous means to acquire their coveted baby.

These crimes are all premeditated and calculated. There’s no way for someone to steal a fetus in a fit of passion. Those affected by this mania often prey upon those they know to be vulnerable. They insinuate themselves into the lives of those who are pregnant; becoming friends and trusted confidants while biding their time. Some cultivate elaborate online personas in order to dupe other women. Some might drug their victims, others restrain and anaesthetise them, while some might simply kill the mother and then perform a crude caesarian section on the body.

There have only been 18 cases of fetal abduction in the United States, between the years 1983 to 2015. Yet the accounts of these isolated incidents are chilling almost beyond words. In 1987 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, an eight-month-pregnant woman named Cindy Ray was kidnapped outside a prenatal clinic at Kirtland Air Force Base. Darci Pierce, at only 19 years old, proceeded to strangle her to death, afterwards, carving open her abdomen with a set of car keys and making off with her daughter. The baby, Millie, survived, and Pierce was subsequently sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 2015, Dynel Lane posted a Craigslist ad advertising baby clothes for sale. When 26-year-old Michelle Wilkins, then seven months pregnant, came to her home to purchase the clothes, Lane bludgeoned and stabbed her repeatedly before extracting the fetus from her body. Lane’s husband later returned home, and Lane claimed to have had a miscarriage. Mr Lane took both Dynel and the dead baby to the hospital. Wilkins, who was trapped in the Lane’s basement, survived the attack and was able to unlock the door and call 911 for help. Lane was sentenced to 100 years imprisonment. More recently, in Fargo, North Dakota, a couple were charged with conspiracy to commit caesarian kidnapping, after the body of pregnant Savanna Greywind was found dead by the riverside eight days after her disappearance on August 9. The child managed to survive.

The only thing we can take away from these incidents is a profound sense of gratitude that they are relatively rare crimes. We must also be sympathetic to the victims; to the mothers who have lost children and the children who have grown up without mothers. Theresa Porter believes that the perpetrators alone are alone responsible for their grievous sins. However, the undue pressure we put on women to be mothers, their own self-inflicted anxieties, and the slow decline of the body during the menopause are all contributing factors. As a society, we need to enforce the idea that motherhood is a choice and not a social imperative.