ANALYSIS: COMMUNITY RELATIONS - NOW responds to criticism, andsustains Yates support

NOW has landed in hot water with its defense of Andrea Yates, the

Texas woman who drowned her five children. Allen Houston asks who is

attacking NOW, and how it is handling the pressure.

Deborah Bell, the amiable president of the Texas chapter of the National

Organization for Women (NOW) has been shocked by the amount of hate mail

and vicious messages that she has received since NOW organized the

Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition with the ACLU and other Texas-based

anti-death-penalty groups.

Yates, the Houston-area woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub

earlier this summer, had a history of mental problems and was diagnosed

with postpartum depression after the birth of her second child. She had

spent nine days in a treatment facility and on two occasions had tried

to commit suicide. Once, according to records filed by her defense team,

her husband had to forcibly take a steak knife away from her. Also, she

had been taking an antipsychotic drug called Haldol.

The grisly nature of the story ensured that it got top billing on all

the nightly news programs and was splashed on the front pages of

newspapers nationwide. It touched a raw nerve in the nation's psyche,

addressing the issues of motherhood, insanity, and most importantly, the

loss of innocent children.

NOW said that it would encourage members to donate money to the Andrea

Yates legal fund. It also said it would protest the death penalty (which

the prosecutors are asking for), and would use Yates' case to spotlight

the issue of postpartum psychosis, a severe form of postpartum

depression that affects one of every 1,000 mothers. But the group was

instantly hit by a media whiplash of negative press claiming that such a

stance proved NOW is anti-motherhood.

Stories bearing the title "Feminists using Yates case to attack

motherhood," "NOW's pity misplaced" and "Andrea Yates - a killer or a

cause?" flooded AP, Reuters, The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle,

the Fox News Network, and National Public Radio.

"We didn't have our message framed in exactly the right terms before we

came to a decision about Andrea Yates," admits Deborah Bell, president

of Texas NOW. "Instead of hearing what we were trying to say, the media

has been trying to spin and sensationalize the case. It's easy for them

to demonize NOW rather than take responsibility and admit that this

woman fell through the cracks."

Raising awareness

The Texas chapter of NOW is planning a number of ways to raise awareness

about postpartum depression. The group will hold an educational forum in

the Houston area to address the issue of postpartum research. It is

developing a brochure about postpartum depression that will be sent to

doctors' offices and clinics. The most aggressive part of the campaign

calls for NOW to place copies of A Mother's Tears, a book offering

advice about postpartum depression, in libraries throughout the US.

NOW also held a candlelight vigil on September 11, a day before Yates'

most recent court appearance. At the vigil, members of the coalition

showed their solidarity by singing songs and holding candles to

represent the five children who were murdered. "We're not excusing what

she did. It's because of the children that we are doing this. If we can

inform one mother who is suffering from postpartum depression and

doesn't know what to do, then I think we have achieved our goal," says


Pressure has been so intense on the group that Kim Gandy, the newly

elected president of NOW (whose first priority was to "send Bush back to

Texas"), has had to issue a statement and take to the airwaves to defend

NOW's position. Last week, Gandy was on FOX and CNN doing just that.

Furthermore, her statement sent to the media addresses the negative

press the group has been receiving: "The media's oversimplification of

this case, and in some cases their misrepresentation of NOW's role, are

both deplorable and dangerous." The statement also read, "We hope that a

broader discussion about the mental health issues involved may prevent a

similar tragedy in the future, and may increase the help available to

other families coping with such a crisis before it turns deadly."

NOW on the defensive

The negative press directed at NOW has claimed that the group is

anti-mother, and that the group's stance against the death penalty in

Andrea Yates case will cause copycat killers to use the "postpartum

plea." On September 6, in Washington, DC, the Independent Women's Action

Project, a right-wing coalition of women, marched outside the

headquarters of NOW to protest the defense of Andrea Yates.

"NOW is dead. They only represent a ridiculously small number of

American women," said Audrey Mullen, a director for the Independent

Women's Action Project. "NOW wants to cover every issue from judicial

nominees to abortion rights. This only proves that they are

anti-motherhood. We believe that this is not a mental health issue.

Jeffrey Dahmer was mentally ill, but he was still held accountable for

his actions."

A column by right-wing columnist and failed Bush appointee Linda Chavez

says that postpartum depression should not be an excuse for one's


"It's true that the male hormone testosterone plays a major role in

provoking aggression - even violence. Yet we don't excuse criminal

behavior in males because their hormones may contribute to their violent

behavior. Should we let women off the hook because their hormones are

out of whack temporarily?"

Even postpartum support groups believe that NOW has stumbled in the way

that it handled its message. Jane Hoinkman has worked with postpartum

issues since the late '60s, when she was first diagnosed with the


During the '70s, she tried to get NOW involved in the issue of

postpartum depression, but the group was uninterested, calling

postpartum depression a family disease.

"They didn't do their homework before they spoke to the press," says

Hoinkman, the founder of Postpartum Support International. "Actually,

people on the other side of the debate are not reading or doing their

homework either. Every time there is some horrible incident like this,

the issue of postpartum comes up, gains attention, and then recedes. But

do I think this hurts NOW's credibility? No, they will ride out the

negative press they are receiving."

Not everyone is a detractor of NOW. David Atwood, cofounder of the Texas

Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), says that he has more

respect for NOW since it has stood up for Andrea Yates and taken the

criticism from the press. "I have an appreciation for the group that I

didn't have before," says Atwood. "A lot of the things that I have read

about the group have been misperceived. It seems like the stories are

more about slamming NOW than addressing the situation with Andrea Yates.

I do believe that many of the people who are slamming NOW are doing so

because they have other agendas and want to discredit the group."

"Ultimately, we are doing the right thing, and that is going to enhance

our position," Bell says. "If people can manage to think for themselves

and look beyond the right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, they

will see that we are trying to heighten awareness about the issue of

postpartum depression. If we can save one life, it'll be worth it."

Meanwhile, the phone calls keep coming.

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