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msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/30/2010 3:46:22 PM ET 2010-07-30T19:46:22

We may never know exactly what led Dominique Cottrez to murder her eight babies. The woman from Villers-au-Tertre, France, who admitted this week to suffocating her newborns told a prosecutor that things went so wrong with her first pregnancy that she never wanted to see a doctor again — even for contraception. And she knew she didn’t want to have any more children.

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Her account may have seemed perfectly logical to her. But for the rest of us, it’s unimaginable. Some msnbc.com commenters saw it as calculated murder. Others wondered if she suffered from some kind of mental illness. How else could Cottrez, now a 46-year-old nurse's aide, raise two daughters and at the same time coldly deliver eight infants on her own and then kill them, hiding their bodies in the garden and garage of her home?

Could it have been post partum depression, or psychosis? Perhaps she heard voices telling her that this was the right thing to do.

“When you’re looking from the outside it looks so bizarre,” says Dr. C. Neill Epperson, an associate professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director of the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness. “You think, how could anyone do that? She must be crazy, or psychotic. But not everyone who kills her child is psychotic or mentally ill.”

The Cottrez case is the latest in a string of serial infanticides that have rocked Europe. Last March another French woman was sentenced to life in prison after police discovered the corpses of six infants she’d murdered. Yet another French woman was convicted last year of murdering her three newborns and hiding two of the corpses in a freezer. And in 2006, a German woman was sentenced to 15 years for killing eight of her newborn babies and then burying them in the garden of her parent’s home.

'Pregnancy denial'
In the case of the French woman convicted last year, defense attorneys suggested that she had killed her babies as a result of “pregnancy denial.” Once each of the babies were born she couldn’t ignore it any longer. Then she panicked and tried to dispose of the evidence by killing the baby.

Epperson isn’t buying that reasoning in these cases of serial murders.

Still, she says, when people feel they have no other options, sometimes they do things that seem to be unthinkable. Without knowing more about Cottrez’s situation, we won’t even be able to guess at what led her to decide to murder her babies.

“We think it’s horrible, against nature to kill one’s offspring,” Epperson says. “But most mammals under the right — or wrong — circumstances will commit infanticide.”

In fact, there are countries in which infanticide is used as a means of population control, Epperson says. An impoverished mother still nursing a third baby will realize she may put all her children’s lives at risk if she has to feed a fourth and she’ll choose to kill the newborn to save the others.

In China, when families were limited to one child, parents would kill a baby girl because she was deemed to be less valuable, she says.

What could have made Cottrez feel so desperate that felt she needed to kill her newborns? “We won’t know until she talks about it,” says Epperson. “Perhaps she was under tremendous adverse circumstances that we don’t know about.”

And, in the end, it may well turn out that Cottrez suffered from some sort of mental illness, says Diane Sanford, a psychologist in private practice in St. Louis and co-author of “Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide.”

The serial nature of the murders argues for severe psychological issues, Sanford says. “Even if we don’t know enough to put a label on it, I cannot imagine this occurring over and over again if this woman’s mental faculties were not impaired to some degree,” she explains. “Whether she is psychotic or an abuse survivor, or whatever, certain psychological factors contributed to these incidents occurring over and over again.”

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