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Two years after infanticide, society still missing message

To very little fanfare outside the North Jersey area he calls home, 21-year-old Brian Peterson was released from a Delaware penitentiary Jan. 4. Brian and his high-school sweetheart Amy splashed onto the national scene two years ago when they delivered and murdered their newborn baby in a motel.

After serving 18 months in prison resulting from his guilty plea, Brian was free to go. With his lawyers and his mother at his side, he read a brief statement thanking those who gave him sympathy and support and promised to make them proud. He then went home to feed his fish and play with his cat, Princess.

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Although I went to high school a few towns over from Brian, I do not know him, but I seriously doubt he is a moral monster. His actions two years ago were more characteristic of a scared kid who made a horrible mistake than a collegiate Hannibal Lecter. Still, the aura around his release and the nature of his sentence strike me as deeply disturbing. His statement made no reference to the newborn son he helped kill two years ago, nor any words of remorse.

Fear not, his lawyers tell us, Brian will spend a lot of time talking to kids about "responsibility" and the importance of seeking guidance in situations of unwanted pregnancies. Noble sentiments all, but ones that paper over the heart of this tragic matter. Must we really believe the lesson Brian has to teach is one of getting help with pregnancies and not an underlying question of respect for human life?

It is not surprising that the guilty party and his lawyers would want to talk around the primary issues of the crime, for none of us enjoy facing the full gravity of our mistakes. That society plays along is more worrisome. The primary locus of complicity is the sentence itself. When the murder of one's own child earns you only 18 months in prison and a speaking tour on the value of help from parents or Planned Parenthood, society sends an ominous signal about how it regards the lives of the innocent.

A conservative commentator at the time of the trial quipped that Peterson's lawyers should have plea-bargained down to a charge of practicing medicine without a license, as partial birth abortions are not too far removed from the crime that sent Peterson to jail. Ironically, he might as well have been charged with quackery, judging by his jail sentence and the kid-gloved treatment he received from the media after his release. The debt is paid and all is well in Pleasantville.

Our willingness to look away from the murder two years after the fact could stem from an underlying societal devaluation of human life - the seeds of which our generation has inherited from the slogans of pro-choice apologists. When we discuss developing humans less in terms of their inherent, objective worth and more as emotional burdens, career obstacles or financial drains, we begin to deprive our moral vocabulary of its words of judgment. Perhaps our growing indifference toward the human rights of the unborn has seeped into our attitude toward violations of the rights of the newly born. Neither, after all, have developed their consciousness, goals or dreams.

The Spring 1999 Princeton Pro-Choice newsletter argues that terms used by pro-life activists inspire violence against abortion providers: "Activists who consider themselves non-violent would do well, when exercising their free speech rights, to consider the effects of their rhetoric." It might be true that rhetoric can lead misguided anti-abortionists to murder, but the contagious effect of social cues is not limited to clinic bombers.

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Just two days after Peterson was released, a 14-year-old girl from Paterson, N.J. was charged with throwing her baby out a second-floor window and leaving it for dead by the train tracks. Like Brian and Amy, if she could have gone to an abortion clinic a few months earlier, she could have avoided the legal hassle. And, if many had their way, the government could have paid for it. Maybe we ought not ask where the outrage has gone anymore. Jeff Pojanowski is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Ramsey, N.J. He can be reached at jeffreyp@princeton.edu.

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