The Ghost in Her Womb: The Phenomenon of False Pregnancy
Today in Kansas City, Missouri a woman is currently on trial for kidnapping resulting in death. At the center of this trial is a medical condition that the defense insists that Lisa Montgomery suffers from called pseudocyesis. They claim that she is mentally unbalanced, suffering from a variety of psychological problems stemming from her childhood, which was marked by sexual abuse and frequent moves. Pseudocyesis, also known as false pregnancy or pseudopregnancy, is a condition wherein a woman believes she is pregnant even though there is no actual fetus in her womb. Experts are unsure as to why women experiencing false pregnancy sometimes exhibit true physical signs of pregnancy. Women who have false pregnancies will claim to have, or actually exhibit true pregnancy symptoms such as amenorrhea (stoppage of menstruation), morning sickness, cravings, widening of the abdomen, enlargement of the breasts and quickening (sensation of a child moving in the womb).
False pregnancy is a rare condition that is nonetheless a serious emotional and psychological condition in women. No single cause for the condition has been universally accepted by mental health professionals, although there are three popular theories. The first theory attributes the false pregnancy to emotional conflict, wherein an intense desire to become pregnant, or an intense fear of becoming pregnant, can create internal conflicts and changes in the endocrine system, which may explain some of the symptoms of false pregnancy. The second theory concerns wish-fulfillment, and it holds that if a women desires pregnancy badly enough she may interpret minor changes in her body as signs of pregnancy. The third leading theory is the depression theory, which maintains that chemical changes in the nervous system associated with some depressive disorders could trigger the symptoms of false pregnancy. Research has also linked false pregnancy to the pituitary gland (the center of hormone production during pregnancy) and an unusually high level of hormones. There is a possibility that the emotional and psychological shifts that lead a woman to falsely believe she is expecting is due to hormone imbalance sparked by stress and anxiety.
According to police, Lisa Montgomery came to the victim’s house under the pretext of purchasing one of the rat terrier puppies that Bobbie Jo Stinnett put up for sale online. The accused allegedly then killed expectant mother Bobbie Jo Stinnett by strangulation and carved the eight month baby from the latter’s womb using a kitchen knife. She then proceeded to take the baby, asking her husband to pick them up at a local diner and drive them home and telling him that she had given birth at a nearby birthing center. The next day she tried to pass the baby off as her own, with the couple going out on the town, displaying the child to friends and acquaintances. Later that day, Lisa Montgomery was arrested following a massive manhunt for the suspect after the mutilated body of Bobbie Jo Stinnett was found in the kitchen of her home by her mother. Police tracked down Lisa Montgomery and the baby the next day through e-mails Montgomery had sent Stinnett about buying a dog. A search of her car yielded several pieces of evidence including a bloody rope used to strangle Stinnett and a knife used in removing the baby from her womb. The rope and knife are among more than 100 pieces of physical evidence prosecutors will present at Montgomery’s trial along with the testimonies of over 100 possible witnesses. Authorities believe that Lisa Montgomery wanted a baby so badly that she was willing to kill to get one.
Experts for the defense say that her tendency to escape into fantasy stemmed from her chaotic childhood, and that she will do anything to protect this fantasy world from collapsing. So despite the fact that she had consented to undergo a tubal ligation in 1990, she may choose not to acknowledge the fact that she can no longer carry a child, especially since she was pressured into the surgery by her mother and then-husband Carl Bowman. She insisted that she was pregnant at least five times since the surgery, refusing to listen to family members who constantly reminded her that it was not possible. This is apparently common in those suffering from pseudocyesis or false pregnancy, and doctors are now disputing their claims using technology such as ultrasound machines or other imaging techniques. Counseling may also be helpful for women who have this condition, because false pregnancy is often indicative of other psychological problems.
In the end, whether or not Lisa Montgomery is suffering from false pregnancy, the saddest part about this case is that a little girl is forced to grow up without her mother.
Image by Costa Rica Bill
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