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Andrea Yates: Person or Nonperson?

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Andrea Yates has been convicted of murder. But the debate over the insanity plea will continue.

Yates admitted to methodically drowning her five young children in a bathtub. Yet she claimed that mental illness made her do it and she didn’t know right from wrong.

This is nothing but a modern, secular version of demonic possession. Psychiatrists are today’s priests and exorcists.

But didn’t psychiatrists testify that Yates suffered from severe postpartum psychosis and/or schizophrenia? Didn’t her jailhouse psychiatrist say Yates was “convinced” that the devil was tormenting her children and she acted to save them? (She also said the devil told her to kill the children.)

All those things were indeed said in court. Do they prove anything about Andrea Yates? No.

Psychiatrists do not see mental illness. They see behavior and hear speech. The inference from behavior to disease is a leap of faith, ungrounded in science.

But aren’t mental illnesses brain illnesses? That is certainly said repeatedly by the mental-health establishment, which has a lot of taxpayer money riding on the issue. But if mental illnesses are really brain diseases, why don’t pathologists find them during autopsies?

Genuine brain illnesses are not excuses for murder. Epileptics and Parkinson’s sufferers can’t plead insanity when they commit crimes. (They also can’t be treated against their will.) Brain illnesses, writes Dr. Thomas Szasz, the famed psychiatrist and psychiatric critic, can cause paralysis or unconsciousness, but they cannot compel a person to carry out a complex plan of action. That requires conscious volition and moral choice. That’s why we typically hold people responsible for their actions. Unproven brain illnesses and metaphorical mental illnesses (the mind isn’t a real organ) shouldn’t absolve people from responsibility.

The reaction to Andrea Yates says more about ourselves than about her. We prefer to believe that heinous acts are attributable to illness rather than to evil people. Why is it more comforting to think that Yates couldn’t help what she did than to think that she chose her actions for some reason? Because we cannot imagine any reason that would motivate such terrible acts. It’s unsurprising that people who are reasonably well adjusted to life’s rigors, responsibilities, and conflicts would have trouble imagining that. But life is complicated and so are human beings’ attempts to muddle through. That a person can feel deluged by life’s demands, seek escape (Yates had attempted suicide), and commit desperate acts is a much more plausible scenario than any mechanistic pseudo-medical account. People are not robots.

One can understand the attempt to save Andrea Yates from the death penalty. But excusing murder on the basis of disease imposes serious costs on us all. The idea that the mind can get sick and make people dangerous is the basis of mental-health laws that permit the imprisonment (called hospital commitment) of law-abiding people at the same time as it excuses killers of their crimes.

Observe the games we play. Had Andrea Yates been acquitted by reason of insanity, she would not have gone free. She’d have been locked up indefinitely in a prison called a hospital and drugged, perhaps electroshocked. She would have been under the total control of psychiatrists deputized by the state. This would have been called therapy, not punishment. Isn’t it more honest to convict her of the multiple murders, imprison her (if she is not executed), and offer her counseling if she wants it?

At the center of our concept of “person” is the idea that behavior has reasons, not causes. When we declare that some people’s behavior is caused by disease, we at the same time declare those people to be nonpersons, strip them of their liberty, excuse their crimes, and give awesome power to doctors. That was more suited to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It shouldn’t happen in the United States of America.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.