Secret births and dead babies focus US horror on teenagers

In Tennessee this week Vice-President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, have been welcoming worthies from across the United States for a "family reunion" forum on the state of the American family. With four children, the eldest soon to marry, the beaming Gores offer the very picture of wholesome family values.

The American public, however, could hardly be less interested. It has been shocked by a spate of cases that show family life in late Nineties US as though through a distorting mirror. The most shocking and most riveting of these cases is known as the "prom murder". In Aberdeen, New Jersey, an 18-year-old school-leaver, Melissa Drexler, has allegedly confessed to giving birth in a toilet during her school-leaving dance - the high- school "prom" - and returning to the dance-floor as though nothing had happened.

Reports say she placed the baby in a plastic bag in the waste-bin, went back to her boyfriend, ordered a song from the disc jockey and ate a salad. The child was later found dead by a cleaner. A post-mortem examination showed that the baby was born alive and Ms Drexler, who appears to come from the sort of family America can be proud of, is charged with murder. She is free on bail, on a surety of $50,000 (pounds 31,250), held against her parents' house and is pleading not guilty.

Each day, new revelations emerge that make the case at once more banal and more horrific. There was blood on the floor and walls of the cubicle, but Ms Drexler was farsighted enough to take off her dress to keep it clean. A girl who was also in the toilets heard strange noises and the scraping of metal: the umbilical cord, it is now said, was probably cut with the serrated edge of the toilet-paper dispenser.

While Ms Drexler's case seems extreme, she is by no means the only school- leaver to find herself in trouble. Also in New Jersey, 18-year-old Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, 19, have been charged with murder after she allegedly gave birth in a motel room in Delaware and left the child, dead, in a dustbin.

Another 18-year-old is said to have given birth in her parents' garage, and attracted attention only when she collapsed afterwards from bleeding and a neighbour found the abandoned child wrapped in a quilt.

These cases may not be a large proportion of the 40 or so infanticides reported each year in the US. But they have shocked because they do not involve black teenagers from ghettos, but "respectable" white girls living in ostensibly stable families in decent areas. What is more, all the girls managed to conceal their pregnancy.

Now, the shock and the incredulity - how could she conceal her pregnancy, how could she kill her baby? - are being overtaken by soul-searching: why did she do it? Some experts have said successful concealment reflects the girl's absolute refusal to believe she can possibly be pregnant. Others have ventured the view that the very diktat of "family values" US-style may have contributed.

What sort of families do we have, asked one, where daughters are so frightened of their parents that they would rather commit infanticide than say they are pregnant?

The three cases that have come to light in the past two weeks are exceptions. But it is also true that the teenage pregnancy rate in the US is comparatively high on an international scale, and the government has been trying to do something about it.

Efforts are directed primarily at black inner-city teenagers, whose pregnancy rate is more than three times that of white teenagers, and in some places action has included cuts in benefit for mothers who conceive children while on welfare. These measures have been accompanied by a propaganda blitz in schools and health centres against teenage pregnancy.

Often, this propaganda stops with the exhortation, "Just say no!" from the influential chastity movement. In a country where chemists occasionally refuse to dispense prescriptions for the Pill, information on birth control and abortion, where available, is often accompanied by moral censure.

The pressure is on "nice" girls to conform. To some, the "prom murder' case shows the extremes to which that pressure may lead. To many others, Melissa Drexler's case is a morality tale on the wages of sin. As one neighbour was quoted as saying: "My heart goes out to her parents, but not to her."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss