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What Weren't We Discussing about Andrea Yates?

by Joan Kennedy


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.


The elephant in the middle of the room to which no one paid attention in the Andrea Yates case was birth control. When the Houston woman who drowned her five children (aged seven, five, three, two, and six months) in a bathtub last June was found guilty of capital murder on March 12, the feminist controversy that had swirled around her for almost a year had initially centered on whether or not she was a victim herself. Did her act exemplify the patriarchal nature of American society, as Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women (NOW) said last summer? Or was such feminist support just a way to excuse a cold-blooded killer-as individualist-feminist columnists Cathy Young and Wendy McElroy both said in different ways, in order to push a feminist victimology agenda: the often-prevailing idea that, by the nature of our society, women are programmed to be victimized by men? Toward the end of the trial, in March, the controversy centered on legal issues, as the image of a woman not just "depressed" but seriously delusional began to emerge in bits and pieces from the courtroom. And after the verdict it was husband Russell Yates who was controversial—was he a victim of the medical establishment himself, or had he failed to do all he might have done to lessen his wife's stress?

What he could have done, of course, as is tragically apparent, was to wear a condom. But that wasn't enunciated in all the Monday-morning quarterbacking that went on after the verdict and sentencing. What no one seemed to discuss, perhaps because doing so would not be politically correct, was the exact nature of the religious ideas that Andrea and her husband had adopted. Russell Yates was seemingly a man of the nineties, if not the twenty-first century-a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) computer engineer at Houston's Johnson Space Center. But computers and engineering did not inform the couple's lifestyle. Until Andrea attempted suicide twice after the birth of their fourth son in 1999, the family lived in a converted bus. Russell then moved the family into a house, and it was decided that Andrea should home-school their children. He has been quoted as saying that they wanted to live "a simple traditional life" and that they wanted to avoid "social integration." (Neighbors who got him to bring the three oldest boys to a birthday party the weekend before the killing told a reporter that it was the first time they had met the Yateses since they moved into their house two years before.)

They had apparently been very influenced by an itinerant preacher and his wife, who also lived in a bus and home-schooled their children. According to a report in the Houston Star-Tribune, preacher Michael Woroniecki believed that society damages children, and that by the time a child is fourteen or fifteen, it is too late to undo the damage. "It might keep them from following the Lord long-term," explained Russell Yates in court. (His wife's explanation of the killings was to save the children from hell.)

Suzy Spencer, who is writing a book about Andrea Yates, made some additional points on a Sally Jessy Raphael Show aired before the verdict was announced. She said the preacher believed "All women are witches" and that men are wimps, beliefs that he put in a brochure entitled "The Witch and the Wimp." She also pointed out that, following her suicide attempts, Andrea Yates was put on the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, and the couple was told that, as long as she took her medication and had no more children, she would be all right.

But less than three months after she was released from the hospital, Andrea was pregnant again. Spencer put it this way. "They both wanted more children, according to him." Andrea Yates was asked in a videotaped interview by a psychiatrist, according to the Associated Press, "what she thought about all the pregnancies and if she tried to prevent them."

"'They were planned,' Andrea responded. 'I was letting it happen.'" And so was Russell.

When Katie Couric asked Russell on the March 18 Today Show how he responded to accusations that he was not attentive, that he left his wife alone, that they shouldn't have continued to have children "after you'd been told by doctors not to," he ignored the last part of her question. "If only I had done this, if only I had done that," he responded. "Obviously, I would have stayed home that morning."

Whether or not, as Russell Yates has been quoted as saying, the desire to have a fifth child was mutual, when the doctors he apparently trusted told him that she should take medication and avoid pregnancy, he only accepted half of the advice. He made sure she took the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, but he didn't say to his wife, "For your health's sake, we must not have another child at this time." Suppose their religion forbade the use of birth control? There's always abstinence.

Birth control is certainly an appropriate action for a couple to take when life is in danger. But many religious groups not only forbid all reproductive choice to their believers, they often want to forbid it to everyone. On the day that the verdict was announced, a New York City television station aired the following promo for a news broadcast: "Today at 6:00—Catholicism and contraception. Cardinal Egan travels to Albany to battle legislation that conflicts with church beliefs." My late mother, staunch Catholic that she was, never could understand this teaching of the church. "If you are against abortion," she would say in bewilderment, "you have to be for birth control!"

"Letting it happen" is not planning. Someone—a husband, a minister, a bureaucrat—told Andrea Yates that it was right for her to "let it happen." Somehow, the lines between birth control and abortion and abortion and child murder were blurred in her mind, as they seem to be in the minds of many religious leaders-and she ended up in effect aborting her children, long after they were born.

Her husband and family were shocked and horrified. As various family members explained over and over in television interviews, no one ever suspected that she was capable of harming her children, especially not Russell Yates. He just thought she might kill herself.


Joan Kennedy Taylor is the author of Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered and the vice president of Feminists for Free Expression.


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