Battered Woman Syndrome

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) was first proposed in the 1970's and was essentially based on the clinical observations of a single researcher. Nevertheless, the concept quickly caught on and became a popular way to justify behavior in some courts. However, while it initially enjoyed success in portions of the legal arena, BWS has not been established nor accepted in the field of psychology by serious and rigorous empirical researchers.

To be sure, clinical syndromes do exist, and BWS may indeed exist, but to date there is insufficient empirical evidence to show this syndrome meets the rigorous diagnostic criteria of psychology or the law. If BWS does exist, there is no reliable means to identify those who suffer from it from those who merely claim it as a legal defense.

BWS appears to be the product of legal advocacy and not science. BWS seems to owe its existence to the needs of legal advocates to support and justify claims by battered women who have killed. Given the lack of an established, empirical, scientific basis and its failure to achieve specific political and social policy goals for women, BWS may not be long for this world.

BWS has been employed in a wide assortment of cases, ranging from the prototypical self-defense case to the more novel prosecutorial use of the syndrome. In the former set of cases, courts define the syndrome's relevance variously, from supporting the honesty of the woman's belief in the need to use deadly force to her mental incapacity to form the requisite mental intent. In the latter set of cases, in which prosecutors use the evidence, the evidence's relevance is ostensibly offered to explain why a battered woman might change her testimony (i.e., commit perjury) and testify that she was not a victim of battering; in fact, BWS is probably used to buttress the prosecution's case by showing prior violent acts by the defendant that would otherwise be excluded by the rules of evidence.

BWS offers broad interpretations of conduct for which there is no empirical support. As courts begin to apply Daubert styled tests of admissibility that query the scientific basis for BWS testimony, they will discover the serious lack of scientific support for BWS. There are numerous non-specific signs that a clinician favorably biased towards BWS will "see" in the reports of a woman relating a history of battering. Such clinicians are quick to then label the clinical history as causing BWS, and the BWS as justifying or explaining the woman's subsequent unlawful conduct. The clinical error or trap lies in the fact that these signs are commonly seen in a variety of conditions, and none are specifically tied to BWS. Further, the patient can simply lie about or exaggerate their abusive history with a host of non-specific signs. There is a human tendency to accept ready explanations and BWS offers just that. This unreliable manner leads to inaccurate diagnosis. A principal tenant of science is there must first be reliability, and absent this, there can be no validity, that is, no trustworthy diagnosis. So, how can anyone determine who does and who does not suffer with BWS? The simple answer is, we cannot.

Advocates for battered women with a social agenda should begin in the near future to doubt the political value of BWS testimony. Although so elastic that it can be shaped to fit any legal case, the syndrome per se has caused certain unintended consequences. In particular, BWS evidence is interpreted by many courts as an indication that battered women suffer from mental deficiencies. Judges may doubt the veracity or accuracy of a defendant claiming the syndrome. For instance, courts are increasingly ordering women claiming the defense to undergo psychological evaluations. Originally proposed as a theory entirely sympathetic to feminist ideals, the syndrome now reinforces some of the most archaic and destructive stereotypes historically attached to women.

Lawyers and judges are obliged to become better consumers of science. Too much is at stake for them to fail in this. BWS originally tapped into a reservoir of disenchantment, frustration, and sometimes outrage over domestic violence. Domestic violence in our country is very real, and according to some reports, it is of epidemic proportions. Keying on this information and widespread sentiments, BWS in the guise of science accomplished a small revolution in the way battered women cases were seen by courts and the public. Using the cloak of science to avoid the difficult jurisprudential questions raised when battered women kill, advocates of BWS found initial success and notoriety. However, today and in the future, these advocates may likely find themselves in the same old world, possibly worse off than before. In fact, there may have been harm done to the reputation of the science of psychology because of the well intended but poorly grounded efforts of just a handful of clinicians.

The syndrome has become a psychological-styled diagnosis in which the woman's "illness," induced by a battering husband, has become the focus. The focus might better remain on the woman herself with traditional legal defenses proffered, such as self-defense. The creation of a syndrome per se is of little help in stemming the tide of battering and domestic violence. The BWS defense now revolves around the woman's mental deficiency and, paradoxically, her purported helplessness. Learned helplessness can be induced in laboratory animals, but with laboratory animals we do not observe a sudden rousing of rage and aggression at any point in the course of their condition. Thus, BWS does not follow the known course of experimentally induced helplessness syndromes. BWS is an anomaly. It does not exist in the laboratory, and it may well not exist in the real world.

History reveals several examples of well meaning clinicians incorrectly applying scientific research to explaining the clinical suffering observed in their patients. BWS is of course one such example. As a point of comparison, another such syndrome is repressed memory syndrome (RMS). This syndrome alleges that young women who were sexually abused as children by their fathers repress the memory of these traumatic events, but they later suffer depression and other psychological disorders. Again, scientific research disputes RMS, because what empirical studies find is that traumatic events, such as being raped, are highlighted and magnified in the memories of victims, not repressed. In fact, these victims obsess and dwell upon these memories and it is the constant recall, not suppression, of these events which lead to depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms.

As courts begin to realize that BWS expert testimony lacks a scientific, or even a reliable technical basis, and women advocates realize that this testimony is inimical to their cause, the battered woman syndrome should begin to fall into disuse. As it leaves the legal and clinical scene, advocates of battered women and proponents of good science should join efforts to discover solutions to the domestic battering that occurs in our country. Women who kill should be treated by the courts with the existing laws that have served us well for so long.

About the Article: Adapted from an excellent article by: Faigman and Wright, 1997.

Copyright © 2002 Joe Wheeler Dixon, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Sep 13, 2014.