Woman cleared of murdering baby as she did not know she was pregnant

Court finds her guilty of negligent homicide after child died during delivery

Experts say pregnancy denial is the opposite of a false pregnancy.
Experts say pregnancy denial is the opposite of a false pregnancy.Tania Castro

In 2012, a 28-year-old woman was charged with killing her newborn baby and placed in custody pending a trial in which she would face a sentence of up to 20 years if found guilty of murder.

But the Spanish justice system has just sentenced her to 10 months and suspended the conviction, which means that she will not go back to prison.

The reason for the leniency is that, for the first time in Spain, the courts have accepted pregnancy denial, a rare psychological condition, as an extenuating circumstance.

Even though Alba (an assumed name) gave birth to a baby girl after nine months, the ruling, which cannot be appealed, concludes that she was not aware of her pregnancy until the moment her baby was delivered. The attorney’s report backs up this decision.

Pregnancy denial is a poorly studied condition that specialists describe as the opposite of a false pregnancy. Women with pregnancy denial barely gain any weight or volume, and rarely experience typical symptoms such as morning sickness – and if they do, put it down to something else. Most people, however, become aware of their situation by the third trimester.

“Strange but possible”

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Ezequiel Campos, head of the gynecology and obstetrics department at Requena Hospital in Valencia province, says it is possible for some pregnancies to show no signs, or for women to attribute the symptoms to something else. But for this to extend into the third trimester is “strange and complex, although not impossible.”

The president of the Spanish Association of Neuropsychiatry, Eudoxia Gay, says “the fact that pregnancy denial is not recognized in a classification system does not mean that such a psychopathological condition does not exist.” Psychopathologically it does exist: every psychosis or disassociation involves losing your sense of reality. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that a dead person isn’t dead, or that you are not pregnant.”

Gay adds that pregnancy denials have occurred among older women with oncoming menopause.

But in Alba’s case that realization did not come until the very end.

On November 22, 2012, Alba, who was then 26, phoned her boss at the store where she worked to say she was experiencing strong stomach cramps and would not be coming in that morning. At 9.27am, according to a sales receipt that was part of the investigation, her boyfriend went down to the nearest pharmacy in Valencia and bought a box of Espidifen, a painkiller often used to alleviate period pain.

But the pain did not go away, and at 10.04am the couple called the emergency services. The call was transferred to the nearest primary care center, 300 meters from their home.

Alba described her symptoms to a doctor, who asked whether it might be a miscarriage. She replied that she was not pregnant. But her boyfriend went down to the health center twice, and managed to convince personnel to send an ambulance to their house, as demonstrated by a receipt that he was given. However, an administrative glitch meant the order never went through and the ambulance did not show up.

The couple continued to request assistance. Telephone records show that between 10am and 2pm they made 23 calls to the health center and two calls to the emergency number 112.

A report by two psychologists concludes that Alba’s IQ is below average, although she has a high school diploma (she graduated two years later than the rest of her classmates) and held a job as a sales clerk.

Other expert reports note than nobody in Alba’s closest circle of family and friends had noticed the pregnancy, even though she continued to wear tight-fitting clothes until the day before delivery.

Alba took the “lump”  coming out of her to be “a tumor” because a friend had recently had cancer

A little before 2pm on November 22, she began bleeding. Her boyfriend ran back into the health center screaming for an ambulance. Meanwhile, Alba was sitting on the toilet back home, and noticed that “a lump” was coming out of her vagina, which she took to be “a tumor” because a friend of hers had recently had cancer.

Alba attempted to extract the “foreign object” with a nail file. She felt something drop into the toilet bowl, and when she pulled it out she saw that it was a baby. When her boyfriend returned, they cut the umbilical cord (but failed to make a knot in it) and wrapped the infant in a blanket. Minutes later an ambulance showed up. Mother and daughter were on the bathroom floor, sitting in a pool of blood. The baby was still breathing, but medics were not able to revive her.

In their first report, the doctors wrote that the infant had three wounds, one of which appeared to have punctured a lung, “making resuscitation impossible.” The police claimed this proved the mother’s “homicidal intentions.” Nobody believed Alba when she said she did not realize she was pregnant, and a judge sent her to preventive prison.

But the autopsy revealed that no lung had been pierced, and that the baby had died of blood loss because the parents failed to knot the umbilical cord after cutting it.

In the end, a court ruled that Alba was guilty of negligent homicide after her defense and the attorney reached a deal. The ruling states that she suffered from “denial of pregnancy, which coupled with the intense, continuous and persistent pain of childbirth, her fear and anguish over unfolding events, and her limited intellectual ability” all contributed to her actions.

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