Slouching Toward Infanticide

The line between abortion and infanticide is growing increasingly blurred

Movie poster for ‘Saint Omer’
Movie poster for ‘Saint Omer’ (photo: Srab Films / IMDB)

Saint Omer is a French film that picked up distinctions at the Venice International Film Festival and has hit wider distribution in the United States. It’s based on the story of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant to France who committed infanticide in 2013 by leaving her 15-month daughter on a November night on a Channel beach as the tide was rising. The little girl’s body was found the next day.

While admitting she had abandoned her child to exposure on a freezing night, Kabou blamed her deed on sorcery and enchantment. A court sitting in the French town of Saint-Omer didn’t buy that and locked her up for 20 years.

Director Alice Diop retells the story as the trial of Laurence Coly, clearly Kabou with but small story details changed. Rama, a French professor of literature of Senegalese extraction, has gone to Saint-Omer to write about the proceedings and Coly as a kind of modern-day Medea. Herself pregnant, Diop intersperses flashbacks to Rama’s own fraught relationship with her now-elderly mother with the trial.

Coly gave birth to Lili, a biracial baby she conceived with Luc Dumontet — a Frenchman 35-some years her senior who takes her in after her father, a Senegalese UN translator back in Africa, cuts off her finances and tuition help when she decides to switch from a law to a philosophy degree at her French university. Coly’s mother, in France, seems primarily interested in the impressions her daughter makes, while Coly herself is alienated from everybody around her. Like Kabou, Coly drowns her daughter.

At the end of his testimony, Dumontet — whose relationship to the child is ambivalent — insists, “I’d like to talk about Lili. Nobody talked about her.”

His offer gets no takers. The defense attorney and court all seem to pile on to Dumontet for his negligence vis-à-vis Coly and, to a lesser degree, Lili. That phenomenon is the most telling aspect of this film, though not the one most critics fixated upon.

In the universe of wokeness, this film hits a trifecta: patriarchy and insensitivity to women, xenophobia and colonialism can all get bashed. Colonial-heritage France is surprised Coly speaks in “so educated” a way. She’s such an abandoned and isolated immigrant in provincial France, sexually exploited by a man twice her age.

When she tries to cast her infanticide and fate as the result of “sorcery” and an “evil eye,” the woke viewer is left with a decision tree: do I (a) nod in respect to her “culture” and its worldview or (b) do I recognize her as the victim of postpartum depression? If you’re troubled by what path to follow where two roads diverged, you can always resort to Coly’s response. Asked by the why she murdered her child, Coly demonstrates the facility with which she can shift between old country values and those of the modern, relativistic West: she says she hopes the trial will tell her.

What one should certainly not do is imitate the male prosecutor (the only man in the court), who tries to bring the case back to the dead child and Coly’s evasions. Or be like Dumontet wanting, too late, to “talk about Lili.”

That’s exactly how most of the reviews of this film are shaking out: lots of people talking about Laurence, practically nobody talking about her baby. Doing the latter, apparently, is reducing Coly’s “complexity” to some parochial, unidimensional concern. Coly’s defense attorney advocates for her client in the name of some new “science,” pointing out that even after a pregnancy is over, a child leaves behind “chimera cells.” So, while tragic, let’s not sweat the small stuff: every mother and every child is in every woman anyway.

Pardon me if I sound a dissenting note. A child is dead. A child died of exposure on a French beach on a November night, her lungs full of sea water. I really don’t care if that death was caused by traditional versus Western values or whether the killer was black, white or polka-dot. A child is dead. That “child” may be in every woman, but her corpse was on a French beach.

That didn’t seem like a key priority to the court (which, in contrast to the real case, never mentions the conviction). The interrogating judge is concerned whether Coly wanted the child in the first place. Did she use contraception? Why didn’t she abort? (Coly’s answer: it was too late.) Did she think Dumontet loved her?

Granted, Dumontet is no model man. Coly has a point when she testifies that, faced with their parenthood, Dumontet’s reply to her was “’What will you do?’ not ‘What will we do?’” That said, Dumontier’s inadequacies do not justify her taking a life.

I raise these points, not just in connection with this film but as a larger cultural issue. I watched Saint Omer on the weekend of the March for Life. Indeed, I saw it on Jan. 22 — the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — at a theater a few blocks from the White House, where the “Women’s March” assembled to defend abortion-on-demand through (and probably past) birth.

To what degree have 50 years of abortion-on-demand led us to the situation where the line between abortion and infanticide is increasingly blurred? Where the idea that a child born during an abortion is entitled to life-saving care is deemed a controversial, debatable proposition? While Alberto Guilin and Francesca Minerva wrote a dozen years ago that the rationales for killing a child just before birth and just after were really not logically distinguishable, the initial shock value has long worn off. Saint Omer is arguably the outcome of that “evolution,” where only a dirty old Frenchman seems interested in Lili’s death.

It suggests that lifestyle libertinism (often masquerading as “Western liberal values”) continues to undermine even the most basic of civilizational taboos. When infanticide elicits indifference while pederasts are rechristened “minor-attracted persons,” we might join with St. Paul in observing that “the night is far spent” (Romans 13:12).

Why bother with this film? Foreign films, after all, have limited American audiences. Two reasons: Saint Omer is likely to be lauded and more broadly distributed as an award-winning film that challenges “taboos” — and it is precisely the erosion of those “taboos” in our culture (especially among its leaders and shakers) that ought to be setting off loud alarm bells.