Infanticide expert puzzled to see Winnipeg mother charged with manslaughter in newborn's death
Charge Jeanene Rosa Moar faces carries a much higher possible sentence than infanticide
An expert on mothers who kill their newborns says she was dismayed to see a Winnipeg woman charged with manslaughter this week in the death of her infant daughter.
Kirsten Kramar, a sociology instructor at the University of Calgary, said the charges laid against Jeanene Rosa Moar fit into a puzzling pattern of how Canadian prosecutors approach the rare crime of infanticide.
Moar was charged with manslaughter after police said the body of her newborn daughter was discovered in a Winnipeg garbage bin last month. She was also charged with concealing the body of a child.
Kramar said her frustration stems from the fact that in Canada, there's another charge meant to specifically address those kinds of situations: infanticide.
The Criminal Code defines the offence as a wilful act or omission by a mother that causes the death of her newborn, if at the time she "is not fully recovered from the effects of giving birth … or of the effect of lactation."
While a manslaughter conviction can carry up to a life sentence in prison, the maximum punishment for infanticide is five years, Kramar said.
"We need to be thinking about solutions other than prosecution and incarceration, particularly for women like this," said Kramar, who wrote the book Unwilling Mothers, Unwanted Babies: Infanticide in Canada.
"They think that if they use the harsher punishment framework, that they're somehow going to be deterring other women from committing these kinds of crimes."
But that shows a lack of understanding about the conditions that lead to the exceedingly rare crime of infanticide, she said.
Mothers convicted of killing their newborns often had little or no support during their pregnancies, said Katreena Scott, academic director for the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University.
Similar cases also often involve domestic violence or mental illness, Scott said.
Moar, whose arrest was announced Wednesday, has struggled with addictions, homelessness and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a court was told during a 2018 sentencing hearing for the now 31-year-old.
Court also heard she had a "fairly good" though transient upbringing, until her mother's boyfriend kicked her out of their house when she was 18. That same boyfriend had also been "emotionally and/or sexually harassing" her, court heard.
Solutions that can address the root causes of infanticide depend on the circumstances in each case, Kramar said. They can include things like making sure women have appropriate supports throughout their pregnancy, and access to birth control and abortion.
Canada's infanticide law is also meant to draw attention to the social circumstances surrounding women who find themselves "with unwanted babies and no options," said Kramar.
"It's not as though we're just dismissing the fact that there was a baby that was killed.… But we're also turning our minds to the various different issues that are [at] play when it comes to mothers who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies," she said.
"If we use this harsh punishment framework, then we can tell ourselves we're doing something, when in fact, you're not really doing anything at all except … handing out a punitive measure to a woman who's already obviously living in straitened circumstances."
Precedent in Canada
Kramar said the trend of prosecutors laying more serious charges against women who kill their infants includes the case of Meredith Borowiec.
The Calgary woman was charged with second-degree murder after she told police she left three of her newborns in dumpsters.
Borowiec ended up instead convicted on two counts of infanticide — a conviction the Supreme Court of Canada upheld in 2016, marking the first time it examined the infanticide law.
That's part of why Kramar said she's puzzled that Moar stands accused of manslaughter instead of infanticide.
"It's not in the public interest. If the case goes to trial ... valuable public resources will be put to use," she said.
"And in the end, the result would likely be the same if they had charged infanticide or were able to negotiate a plea arrangement."
In Borowiec's case, Crown attorneys had argued the wording of Canada's infanticide law is vague, outdated and leaves too much room for new mothers to kill their babies, regardless of moral culpability.
But the top court's unanimous decision to uphold Borowiec's infanticide convictions and preserve the law as it stood set a precedent, said D. Scharie Tavcer, an associate professor in the criminal justice program at Mount Royal University.
Tavcer said securing a manslaughter conviction instead of one for infanticide still requires prosecutors to prove both the criminal intent and action needed for that charge.
"I don't know what the investigators know" in Moar's case, she said.
But a manslaughter conviction would require proving "some type of criminal intent, criminal mind — the mens rea — in the heat of passion, a sudden provocation, versus the infanticide, where mom is unwell."
Winnipeg police said this week the decision to lay the manslaughter charge against Moar was made in consultation with Crown prosecutors.
When asked about the charges on Friday, a spokesperson for the Manitoba Prosecution Service said in an email it reviews "the evidence and circumstances of each case and determine[s] which charges properly reflect what has occurred."
Kramar says cases like the one unfolding in Winnipeg show just how much progress still needs to be made to address the types of situations that lead to infanticide.
"These kinds of cases are a bit like the canary in the coal mine," she said.
"When our weakest and most vulnerable members of society end up committing these kinds of offences, it says a lot more about society than it does about the individuals themselves."
With files from Alana Cole