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PMS as Legal Defense in the 1980s

Ah, the dreaded PMS. A time of bloating and headaches, cramps and breakouts. Seems like fun, right? Not quite. In fact, it can be so terrible that it causes you to run over your loved one. Let me explain.

PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, generally begins one to two weeks before menstruation (3). The severity of symptoms will vary from person to person, but unpleasant physical conditions, such as bloating and fatigue, as well as mood swings, irritability, social withdrawal, and other mental symptoms, are commonly reported (3). In fact, 75% of women say they experience at least one symptom of PMS (3). Only up to 5%, however, experience PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (6). This is similar to PMS, but more severe, to the point of interfering with daily life (6).

Now, let’s say it's currently 1981 in England. Christine English successfully pleads guilty for manslaughter- not murder- after running over her significant other following a heated argument (4). Yes, seriously. She used her history of severe PMS as diminished responsibility defense. Essentially, she argued her mental capacity was hindered by PMS, and therefore should not take the full punishment for her crime (1).

Let’s look at another example. Sandie Smith, a barmaid with a history of stabbing a coworker and other crimes, received 3-year probation after threatening to kill a police officer with a knife (4). She, like English, argued her PMS symptoms drove her to commit violent acts she would not have committed otherwise (4).

This kind of defense in the court began with smaller crimes, such as shoplifting, but escalated to more severe cases, causing legal and medical professionals to further consider how PMS affects behavior and decision making (5). A few countries recognized PMS as a legal defense, but US courts did not (2).

These cases presented implications that may have affected not only the legal system but the average woman as well. By supporting the idea that menstruation causes women to become “crazy” or “insane,” the cases of Christine English and Sandie Smith may have perpetuated negative stereotypes often used to justify the exclusion of women from leadership, social, or economic opportunities. Unfortunately, these beliefs are still alive and well in our society, if only in snide comments born of ignorance.

So, did these women deserve the full punishment for their crimes? Can PMS truly cause you to kill another human, even a significant other?


As always,

We wish you well.


About the author:

Hi! My name is Eowyn Ream, and I am a sophomore at Liberty High School. After understanding the severity of period poverty around the world and the lack of conversation surrounding menstruation itself, I decided to change the narrative alongside the SAPP community- one sentence at a time.

image: https://fertilityroad.com/pms-plan-to-reduce-symptoms-suffering/

  1. Brozan, N. (1982, July 12). Premenstrual Syndrome: A Complex Issue. The New York Times. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/1982/07/12/style/premenstrual-syndrome-a-complex-issue.html.

  2. DiLiberto, R. A. (n.d.). Premenstrual Stress Syndrome Defense - Legal, Medical and Social Aspects. Premenstrual Stress Syndrome Defense - Legal, Medical and Social Aspects | Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/premenstrual-stress-syndrome-defense-legal-medical-and-social.

  3. Eske, J. (2019, May). Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS): What It Is, Symptoms, and Treatments. Medical News Today. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325314#symptoms.

  4. The New York Times. (1981, December 29). British Legal Debate: Premenstrual Tension and Criminal Behavior. The New York Times. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/29/science/british-legal-debate-premenstrual-tension-and-criminal-behavior.html.

  5. Premenstrual Tension Used As Murder Defense. California Digital Newspaper Collection. (1982, January 20). Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=UCD19820120.2.34&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN--------1.

  6. WebMD. (2020, July). Sexual Health: Your Guide to Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. WebMD. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/women/pms/premenstrual-dysphoric-disorder#091e9c5e800075c2-2-4.


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