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Infanticide (or infant homicide) is the intentional killing of infants or children.
In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible. In some countries, female infanticide is more common than the killing of male offspring, due to sex-selective infanticide. In China for example, the sex gap between males and females aged 0–19 year old was estimated to be 25 million in 2010 by the United Nations Population Fund.
In English law infanticide is established as a distinct offence by the Infanticide Acts. Defined as the killing of a child under 12 months of age by their mother, the effect of the Acts are to establish a partial defence to charges of murder.
- 1 History and pre-history
- 1.1 Paleolithic and Neolithic
- 1.2 In ancient history
- 1.3 Christianity
- 1.4 Arabia
- 1.5 Islam
- 1.6 Ukraine and Russia
- 1.7 Georgia
- 1.8 Asia
- 1.9 Africa
- 1.10 Australia
- 1.11 North America
- 1.12 South America
- 2 Modern times
- 3 Modern proposals
- 4 Explanations for the practice
- 5 Current law
- 6 Prevention
- 7 In animals
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
History and pre-history
The practice of infanticide has taken many forms over time. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as that believed to have been practiced in ancient Carthage, may be only the most notorious example in the ancient world. Anthropologist Laila Williamson notes that "Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.":61
In at least one island in Oceania, infanticide was carried out until the 20th century by suffocating the infant, while in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in the Inca Empire it was carried out by sacrifice (see below).
Paleolithic and Neolithic
Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide in order to control their numbers so that their lands could support them. Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births, while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%.:66 Both anthropologists believed that these high rates of infanticide persisted until the development of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution.:19 Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. The children were not necessarily actively killed, but neglect and intentional malnourishment may also have occurred, as proposed by Vicente Lull as an explanation for an apparent surplus of men and the below average height of women in prehistoric Menorca.
In ancient history
In the New World
Archaeologists have uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice at several locations.:16–22 Some of the best attested examples are the diverse rites which were part of the religious practices in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.
In the Old World
Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage "[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith.":324 Besides the Carthaginians, other Phoenicians, and the Canaanites, Moabites and Sepharvites offered their first-born as a sacrifice to their gods.
In Egyptian households, at all social levels, children of both sexes were valued and there is no evidence of infanticide. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians forbade infanticide and during the Greco-Roman period they rescued abandoned babies from manure heaps, a common method of infanticide by Greeks or Romans, and were allowed to either adopt them as foundlings or raise them as slaves, often giving them names such as "copro -" to memorialise their rescue. Strabo considered it a peculiarity of the Egyptians that every child must be reared. Diodorus indicates infanticide was a punishable offence. Egypt was heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile to irrigate the land and in years of low inundation severe famine could occur with breakdowns in social order resulting, notably between 930-1070 AD and 1180-1350 AD. Instances of cannibalism are recorded during these periods but it is unknown if this happened during the pharaonic era of Ancient Egypt. Beatrix Midant-Reynes describes human sacrifice as having occurred at Abydos in the early dynastic period (c. 3150-2850 BCE), while Jan Assmann asserts there is no clear evidence of human sacrifice ever happening in Ancient Egypt.
According to Shelby Brown, Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods. Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns. Skeptics suggest that the bodies of children found in Carthaginian and Phoenician cemeteries were merely the cremated remains of children that died naturally.
Plutarch (c. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet (from the Hebrew taph or toph, to burn) by the Canaanites. Writing in the 3rd century BCE, Kleitarchos, one of the historians of Alexander the Great, described that the infants rolled into the flaming pit. Diodorus Siculus wrote that babies were roasted to death inside the burning pit of the god Baal Hamon, a bronze statue.
Greece and Rome
The historical Greeks considered the practice of adult and child sacrifice barbarous, however, the exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was even advocated by Aristotle in the case of congenital deformity — "As to the exposure of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” In Greece the decision to expose a child was typically the father's, although in Sparta the decision was made by a group of elders. Exposure was the preferred method of disposal, as that act in itself was not considered to be murder; moreover, the exposed child technically had a chance of being rescued by the gods or any passersby. This very situation was a recurring motif in Greek mythology. To notify the neighbors of a birth of a child, a woolen strip was hung over the front door to indicate a female baby and an olive branch to indicate a boy had been born. Families did not always keep their new child. After a woman had a baby, she would show it to her husband. If the husband accepted it, it would live, but if he refused it, it would die. Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or deformed, the wrong sex, or too great a burden on the family. These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.
The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it. A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, or a pregnant wife from her husband, dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
- "I am still in Alexandria. ... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.", "If you give birth to a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, expose it. Try not to worry. I'll send the money as soon as we get paid."
In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. The concurrent practices of slavery and infanticide contributed to the "background noise" of the crises during the Republic.
According to mythology, Romulus and Remus, twin infant sons of the war god Mars, survived near-infanticide after being tossed into the Tiber River. According to the myth, they were raised by wolves, and later founded the city of Rome.
Judaism prohibits infanticide, and has for some time, dating back to at least early Common Era. Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews "regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children." Josephus, whose works give an important insight into 1st-century Judaism, wrote that God "forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward."
Pagan European tribes
In his book Germania, Tacitus wrote that the ancient Germanic tribes enforced a similar prohibition. He found such mores remarkable and commented: "[The Germani] hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child." Modern scholarship differs. John Boswell believed that in ancient Germanic tribes unwanted children were exposed, usually in the forest.:218 "It was the custom of the [Teutonic] pagans, that if they wanted to kill a son or daughter, they would be killed before they had been given any food.":211 Usually children born out of wedlock were disposed that way.
The Íslendingabók, a main source for the early history of Iceland, recounts that on the Conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 1000 it was provided - in order to make the transition more palatable to Pagans - that "(...)the old laws allowing exposure of newborn children will remain in force". However, this provision - like other concessions made at the time to the Pagans - was abolished some years later.
Christianity rejects infanticide. The Teachings of the Apostles or Didache said "You shall not kill that which is born." The Epistle of Barnabas stated an identical command. Apologists Tertullian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr and Lactantius also maintained that exposing a baby to death was a wicked act. In 318 AD, Constantine I considered infanticide a crime, and in 374 AD, Valentinian I mandated the rearing of all children (exposing babies, especially girls, was still common). The Council of Constantinople declared that infanticide was homicide, and in 589 AD, the Third Council of Toledo took measures against the custom of killing their own children.
Whereas theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents.:16 According to William L. Langer, exposure in the Middle Ages "was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference".:355–356 At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river in daylight.
In the High Middle Ages, abandoning unwanted children finally eclipsed infanticide. Unwanted children were left at the door of church or abbey, and the clergy was assumed to take care of their upbringing. This practice also gave rise to the first orphanages.
However, very high sex ratios were common in even late medieval Europe, which may indicate sex-selective infanticide.
According to Islamic sources, pre-Islamic Arabian society practiced infanticide as a form of "post-partum birth control". Regarding the prevalence of this practice, we know it was "common enough among the pre-Islamic Arabs to be assigned a specific term, waʾd". Infanticide was practiced either out of destitution (thus practiced on males and females alike), or as sacrifices to gods, or as "disappointment and fear of social disgrace felt by a father upon the birth of a daughter".
Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, who practiced it during severe famine. Others state that "female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time" (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.:59
Islam Infanticide is explicitly prohibited by the Qur'an. "And do not kill your children for fear of poverty; We give them sustenance and yourselves too; surely to kill them is a great wrong." Together with polytheism and homicide, infanticide is regarded as a grave sin (see 6:151 and 60:12). Infanticide is also implicitly denounced in the story of Pharaoh's slaughter of the male children of Israelites (see 2:49; 7:127; 7:141; 14:6; 28:4 ;40:25).
Ukraine and Russia
Infanticide may have been practiced as human sacrifice, as part of the pagan cult of Perun. Ibn Fadlan describes sacrificial practices at the time of his trip to Kiev Rus (present day Ukraine) in 921-922, and describes an incident of a woman voluntarily sacrificing her life as part of a funeral rite for a prominent leader, but makes no mention of infanticide. The Primary Chronicle, one of the most important literary sources before the 12th century, indicates that human sacrifice to idols may have been introduced by Vladimir the Great in 980. The same Vladimir the Great formally converted Kiev Rus into Christianity just 8 years later, but pagan cults continued to be practiced clandestinely in remote areas as late as the 13th century.
In Kamchatka, babies were killed and thrown to the dogs.:105 American explorer George Kennan noted that among the Koryaks, a Mongoloid people of north-eastern Siberia, infanticide was still common in the nineteenth century. One of a pair of twins was always sacrificed.
Short of execution, the harshest penalties were imposed on practitioners of infanticide by the legal codes of the Qin dynasty and Han dynasty of ancient China.
Marco Polo, the famed explorer, saw newborns exposed in Manzi. China's society practiced sex selective infanticide. Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BC, who developed a school of law, wrote: "As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death." Among the Hakka people, and in Yunnan, Anhui, Sichuan, Jiangxi and Fujian a method of killing the baby was to put her into a bucket of cold water, which was called "baby water".
Infanticide was known in China as early as the 3rd century BC, and, by the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), it was widespread in some provinces. Buddhist belief in transmigration allowed poor residents of the country to kill their newborn children if they felt unable to care for them, hoping that they would be reborn in better circumstances. Furthermore, some Chinese did not consider newborn children fully "human", and saw "life" beginning at some point after the sixth month after birth.
Contemporary writers from the Song dynasty note that, in Hubei and Fujian provinces, residents would only keep three sons and two daughters (among poor farmers, two sons and one daughter), and kill all babies beyond that number at birth. Initially the sex of the child was only one factor to consider. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, however (1368–1644), male infanticide was becoming increasingly uncommon. The prevalence of female infanticide remained high much longer. The magnitude of this practice is subject to some dispute; however, one commonly quoted estimate is that, by late Qing, between one fifth and one quarter of all newborn girls, across the entire social spectrum, were victims of infanticide. If one includes excess mortality among female children under 10 (ascribed to gender-differential neglect), the share of victims rises to one third.
Scottish Physician John Dudgeon, who worked in Beijing, China, during the Qing Dynasty said that in China, "Infanticide does not prevail to the extent so generally believed among us, and in the north it does not exist at all."
Gender-selected abortion, abandonment, and infanticide are illegal in present-day China. Nevertheless, the US State Department, and the human rights organization Amnesty International have all declared that China's family planning programs, called the one child policy, contribute to infanticide.
Since feudal Japan the common slang for infanticide was "mabiki" (間引き) which means to pull plants from an overcrowded garden. A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby's mouth and nose. Mabiki persisted in the 19th century and early 20th century. To bear twins was perceived as barbarous and unlucky and efforts were made to hide or kill one or both twins.
Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in South Asia for illegitimate female children during the Middle Ages. According to Firishta, as soon as the illegitimate female child was born she was held "in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death". The practice of female infanticide was also common among the Kutch, Kehtri, Nagar, Bengal, Miazed, Kalowries in India inhabitants, and also among the Sindh in British India.
It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.:78
In some African societies some neonates were killed because of beliefs in evil omens or because they were considered unlucky. Twins were usually put to death in Arebo; as well as by the Nama Hottentots of South West Africa; in the Lake Victoria Nyanza region; by the Tswana in Portuguese East Africa; in some parts of Igboland, Nigeria twins were sometimes abandoned in a forest at birth, oftentimes one twin was killed or hidden by midwives of wealthier mothers; and by the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert.:160–161 The Kikuyu, Kenya's most populous ethnic group, practiced ritual killing of twins.
Literature suggests infanticide may have occurred reasonably commonly amongst Indigenous Australians, in all areas of Australia prior to European settlement. Infanticide may have continued to occur quite often up until the 1960s. An 1866 issue of 'The Australian News for Home Readers' informed readers that "the crime of infanticide is so prevalent amongst the natives that it is rare to see an infant."
Author Susanna de Vries in 2007 told a newspaper that her accounts of Aboriginal violence, including infanticide, was censored by publishers in the 1980s and 1990s. She told reporters that the censorship "stemmed from guilt over the stolen children question." Keith Windschuttle weighed in on the conversation, saying this type of censorship started in the 1970s. In the same article Louis Nowra suggested that infanticide in customary Aboriginal law may have been because it was difficult to keep an abundant number of Aboriginal children alive; there were life-and-death decisions modern-day Australians no longer have to face.
South Australia and Victoria
James Dawson wrote a passage about infanticide amongst Indigenous people in the western district of Victoria, which stated that "Twins are as common among them as among Europeans; but as food is occasionally very scarce, and a large family troublesome to move about, it is lawful and customary to destroy the weakest twin child, irrespective of sex. It is usual also to destroy those which are malformed."
He also wrote "When a woman has children too rapidly for the convenience and necessities of the parents, she makes up her mind to let one be killed, and consults with her husband which it is to be. As the strength of a tribe depends more on males than females, the girls are generally sacrificed. The child is put to death and buried, or burned without ceremony; not, however, by its father or mother, but by relatives. No one wears mourning for it. Sickly children are never killed on account of their bad health, and are allowed to die naturally."
Australian Capital Territory
A Canberran journalist in 1927 wrote of the 'cheapness of life' to the Aboriginal people local to the Canberra area 100 years before. "If drought or bush fires had devastated the country and curtailed food supplies, babies got short shift. Ailing babies, too would not be kept" he wrote.
New South Wales
A bishop wrote in 1928 that it was common for Aboriginal Australians to restrict the size of their tribal groups, including by infanticide, so that the food resources of the tribal area may be sufficient for them. See also.
Annette Hamilton, a professor of anthropology at Macquarie University who carried out research in the Aboriginal community of Maningrida in Arnhem Land during the 1960s wrote that prior to that time part-European babies born to Aboriginal mothers had not been allowed to live, and that 'mixed-unions are frowned on by men and women alike as a matter of principle'.
The Yukon and the Mahlemuit tribes of Alaska exposed the female newborns by first stuffing their mouths with grass before leaving them to die. In Arctic Canada the Inuit exposed their babies on the ice and left them to die.:354
Female Inuit infanticide disappeared in the 1930s and 1940s after contact with the Western cultures from the South.
In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide. For the Maidu Native Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well. In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.
Bernal Díaz recounted that, after landing on the Veracruz coast, they came across a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. "That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol". In The Conquest of New Spain Díaz describes more child sacrifices in the towns before the Spaniards reached the large Aztec city Tenochtitlan.
Although academic data of infanticides among the indigenous people in South America is not as abundant as that of North America, the estimates seem to be similar.
The Tapirapé indigenous people of Brazil allowed no more than three children per woman, and no more than two of the same sex. If the rule was broken infanticide was practiced. The people in the Bororo tribe killed all the newborns that did not appear healthy enough. Infanticide is also documented in the case of the Korubo people in the Amazon.
"They killed so many. I was weeping for fear and for pity but there was nothing I could do. They snatched the children from their mothers to kill them, while the others held the mothers tightly by the arms and wrists as they stood up in a line. All the women wept. ... The men began to kill the children; little ones, bigger ones, they killed many of them.”.
Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia
While qhapaq hucha was practiced in the Peruvian large cities, child sacrifice in the pre-Columbian tribes of the region is less documented. However, even today studies on the Aymara Indians reveal high incidences of mortality among the newborn, especially female deaths, suggesting infanticide. The Abipones, a small tribe of Guaycuran stock, of about 5,000 by the end of the 18th century in Paraguay, practiced systematic infanticide; with never more than two children being reared in one family. The Machigenga killed their disabled children. Infanticide among the Chaco in Paraguay was estimated as high as 50% of all newborns in that tribe, who were usually buried. The infanticidal custom had such roots among the Ayoreo in Bolivia and Paraguay that it persisted until the late 20th century.
Infanticide has become less common in the Western world. The frequency has been estimated to be approximately 1 in 3000-5000 children of all ages and 2.1 per 100,000 newborns per year. It is thought that infanticide today continues at a much higher rate in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India. Female infants, then and even now, are particularly vulnerable, a factor in sex-selective infanticide. Recent estimates suggest that over 100 million girls and women are 'missing' in Asia.
According to "The Hidden Gulag" published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the People's Republic of China returns all illegal immigrants from North Korea which usually imprisons them in a short term facility. Women who are suspected of being impregnated by Chinese fathers are subjected to forced abortions; babies born alive are killed, sometimes by exposure or being buried alive.
There have been some accusations that infanticide occurs in the People's Republic of China due to the one-child policy. In the 1990s, a certain stretch of the Yangtze River was known to be a common site of infanticide by drowning, until government projects made access to it more difficult. Recent studies suggest that over 40 million girls and women are 'missing' in China (Klasen and Wink 2003).
According to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million girls and women are missing in India's population as a result of systematic sex discrimination and sex selective abortions.
Killings of newborn babies have been on the rise in Pakistan, corresponding to an increase in poverty across the country. More than 1,000 infants, mostly girls, have been killed or abandoned to die in Pakistan in 2009 according to a Pakistani charity organization.
The Edhi Foundation found 1,210 dead babies in 2010. Many more are abandoned and left at the doorsteps of mosques. As a result, Edhi centers feature signs "Do not murder, lay them here." Though female infanticide is punishable by life in prison, such crimes are rarely prosecuted.
In November 2008 it was reported that in Agibu and Amosa villages of Gimi region of Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea where tribal fighting in the region of Gimi has been going on since 1986 (many of the clashes arising over claims of sorcery) women had agreed that if they stopped producing males, allowing only female babies to survive, their tribe's stock of boys would go down and there would be no men in the future to fight. They agreed to have all newborn male babies killed. It is not known how many male babies were killed by being smothered, but it had reportedly happened to all males over a 10-year period and probably was still happening.
In England and Wales there were typically 30 to 50 homicides per million children less than 1 year old between 1982 and 1996. The younger the infant, the higher the risk. The rate for children 1 to 5 years was around 10 per million children. The homicide rate of infants less than 1 year is significantly higher than for the general population.
United States of America
In 1983, the United States ranked eleventh for infants under 1 year killed, and fourth for those killed from 1 through 14 years (the latter case not necessarily involving filicide). In the U.S. over six hundred children were killed by their parents in 1983.
In the United States the infanticide rate during the first hour of life dropped from 1.41 per 100,000 during 1963 to 1972 to 0.44 per 100,000 for 1974 to 1983; the rates during the first month of life also declined, whereas those for older infants rose during this time. The legalization of abortion, which was completed in 1973, was the most important factor in the decline in neonatal mortality during the period from 1964 to 1977, according to a study by economists associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In Canada 114 cases of infanticide by a parent were reported during 1964-1968. There is ongoing debate in the Canadian legal and political fields about whether section 233 of the Criminal Code, which creates the specific offence and partial defence of infanticide in Canadian law, should be amended or abolished altogether.
In a 2012 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a philosopher and a bioethicist jointly proposed that infanticide be legalized, calling it "after-birth abortion", and claiming that both "the fetus and the newborn are potential persons". Many replies were published to this article.
Euthanasia applied to children that are gravely ill or that suffer from significant birth defects is legal in the Netherlands under rigidly controlled conditions, but controversial. Some critics have compared child euthanasia to infanticide.
Explanations for the practice
There are various reasons for infanticide. Neonaticide typically has different patterns and causes than for killing of older infants. Traditional neonaticide is often related to economic necessity - inability to provide for the infant.
In the United Kingdom and the United States, older infants are typically killed for reasons related to child abuse, domestic violence or mental illness. For infants older than one day, younger infants are more at risk, and boys are more at risk than girls. Risk factors for the parent include: Family history of violence, violence in current relationship, history of abuse or neglect of children, and personality disorder and/or depression.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, "loopholes" were invented by those who wanted to avoid the damnation that was promised by most Christian doctrine as a penalty of suicide. One famous example of someone who wished to end their life but avoid the eternity in hell was Christina Johansdotter (died 1740). She was a Swedish murderer who killed a child in Stockholm with the sole purpose of being executed. She is an example of those who seek suicide through execution by committing a murder. It was a common act, frequently targeting young children or infants as they were believed to be free from sin, thus going straight to heaven.
In 1888, Lieut. F. Elton reported that Ugi beach people in the Solomon Islands killed their infants at birth by burying them, and women were also said to practice abortion. They reported that it was too much trouble to raise a child, and instead preferred to buy one from the bush people. Larry S. Milner, author of Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life, a treatise on infanticide, believes that superstition has always reigned supreme in tribal religion. In chapters 9 through 21 Milner explores diverse customs and taboos as possible causes of infanticide, from punishment and shame to poverty, famine, revenge, depression and insanity and superstitious omens.
Many historians believe the reason to be primarily economic, with more children born than the family is prepared to support. In societies that are patrilineal and patrilocal, the family may choose to allow more sons to live and kill some daughters, as the former will support their birth family until they die, whereas the latter will leave economically and geographically to join their husband's family, possibly only after the payment of a burdensome dowry price. Thus the decision to bring up a boy is more economically rewarding to the parents.:362–368 However, this does not explain why infanticide would occur equally among rich and poor, nor why it would be as frequent during decadent periods of the Roman Empire as during earlier, less affluent, periods.:28–34, 187–192
Before the appearance of effective contraception, infanticide was a common occurrence in ancient brothels. Unlike usual infanticide - where historically girls have been more likely to be killed - prostitutes in certain areas preferred to kill their male offspring.
UK 18th and 19th century
Instances of infanticide in Britain in 18th and 19th century is often attributed to the economic position of the women, with juries committing pious perjury in many subsequent murder cases. The knowledge of the difficulties faced in the 18th century by those women who attempted to keep their children can be seen as reason for juries to show compassion. If the woman chose to keep the child, society was not set up to ease the pressure placed upon the woman, legally, socially or economically.
In mid-18th century Britain there was assistance available for women who were not able to raise their children. The Foundling Hospital opened in 1756 and was able to take in some of the illegitimate children. However, the conditions within the hospital caused Parliament to withdraw funding and the governors to live off of their own incomes. This resulted in a stringent entrance policy, with the committee requiring that the hospital:
'Will not receive a child that is more than a year old, nor the child of a domestic servant, nor any child whose father can be compelled to maintain it'.
Once a mother had admitted her child to the hospital, the hospital did all it could to ensure that the parent and child were not re-united.
Macfarlane argues in Illegitimacy and Illegitimates in Britain (1980) that English society greatly concerned itself with the burden that a bastard child places upon its communities and had gone to some lengths to ensure that the father of the child is identified in order to maintain its well-being. Assistance could be gained through maintenance payments from the father, however, this was capped ‘at a miserable 2s and 6d a week’. If the father got into arrears with the payments he could only be asked ‘to pay a maximum of 13 weeks arrears’.
Despite the accusations of some that women were getting a free hand-out there is evidence that many women were far from receiving adequate assistance from their parish. "Within Leeds in 1822 … relief was limited to 1s per week". Sheffield required women to enter the workhouse, whereas Halifax gave no relief to the women who required it. The prospect of entering the workhouse was certainly something to be avoided. Lionel Rose quotes Dr Joseph Rogers in Massacre of the Innocents … (1986). Rogers, who was employed by a London workhouse in 1856 stated that conditions in the nursery were ‘wretchedly damp and miserable … [and] … overcrowded with young mothers and their infants’.
The loss of social standing for a servant girl was a particular problem in respect of producing a bastard child as they relied upon a good character reference in order to maintain their job and more importantly, to get a new or better job. In a large number of trials for the crime of infanticide, it is the servant girl that stood accused. The disadvantage of being a servant girl is that they had to live to the social standards of their superiors or risk dismissal and no references. Whereas within other professions, such as in the factory, the relationship between employer and employee was much more anonymous and the mother would be better able to make other provisions, such as employing a minder. The result of the lack of basic social care in Britain in the 18th and 19th century is the numerous accounts in court records of women, particularly servant girls, standing trial for the murder of their child.
There may have been no specific offence of infanticide in England before about 1623 because infanticide was a matter for the by ecclesiastical courts, possibly because infant mortality from natural causes was high (about 15% or one in six).
Thereafter the accusation of the suppression of bastard children by lewd mothers was a crime incurring the presumption of guilt.
The Infanticide Acts are several laws. That of 1922 made the killing of an infant child by its mother during the early months of life as a lesser crime than murder. The acts of 1938 and 1939 abolished the earlier act, but introduced the idea that postpartum depression was legally to be regarded as a form of diminished responsibility.
Marvin Harris estimated that among Paleolithic hunters 23-50% of newborn children were killed. He argued that the goal was to preserve the 0.001% population growth of that time.:15 He also wrote that female infanticide may be a form of population control.:5 Population control is achieved not only by limiting the number of potential mothers; increased fighting among men for access to relatively scarce wives would also lead to a decline in population. For example, on the Melanesian island of Tikopia infanticide was used to keep a stable population in line with its resource base. Research by Marvin Harris and William Divale supports this argument, it has been cited as an example of environmental determinism.
Evolutionary psychology has proposed several theories for different forms of infanticide. Infanticide by stepfathers, as well as child abuse in general by stepfathers, has been explained by spending resources on not genetically related children reducing reproductive success (See the Cinderella effect and Infanticide (zoology)). Infanticide is one of the few forms of violence more often done by women than men. Cross-cultural research have found that this is more likely to occur when the child has deformities or illnesses as well as when there are lacking resources due to factors such as poverty, other children requiring resources, and no male support. Such a child may have a low chance of reproductive success in which case it would decrease the mother's inclusive fitness, in particular since women generally have a greater parental investment than men, to spend resources on the child. .
"Early infanticidal childrearing"
A minority of academics subscribe to an alternate school of thought, considering the practice as "early infanticidal childrearing".:246–247 They attribute parental infanticidal wishes to massive projection or displacement of the parents' unconscious onto the child, because of intergenerational, ancestral abuse by their own parents. Clearly, an infanticidal parent may have multiple motivations, conflicts, emotions, and thoughts about their baby and their relationship with their baby, which are often colored both by their individual psychology, current relational context and attachment history, and, perhaps most saliently, their psychopathology (See also Psychiatric section below) Almeida, Merminod, and Schechter suggest that parents with fantasies, projections, and delusions involving infanticide need to be taken seriously and assessed carefully, whenever possible, by an interdisciplinary team that includes infant mental health specialists or mental health practitioners who have experience in working with parents, children, and families.
In addition to debates over the morality of infanticide itself, there is some debate over the effects of infanticide on surviving children, and the effects of childrearing in societies that also sanction infanticide. Some argue that the practice of infanticide in any widespread form causes enormous psychological damage in children.:261–262 Conversely, studying societies that practice infanticide Géza Róheim reported that even infanticidal mothers in New Guinea, who ate a child, did not affect the personality development of the surviving children; that "these are good mothers who eat their own children". Harris and Divale's work on the relationship between female infanticide and warfare suggests that there are, however, extensive negative effects.
Postpartum psychosis is also a causative factor of infanticide. Stuart S. Asch, MD, a Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University established the connections between some cases of infanticide and post-partum depression., The books, From Cradle to Grave, and The Death of Innocents, describe selected cases of maternal infanticide and the investigative research of Professor Asch working in concert with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. Stanley Hopwood wrote that childbirth and lactation entail severe stress on the female sex, and that under certain circumstances attempts at infanticide and suicide are common. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed that 44% of filicidal fathers had a diagnosis of psychosis. In addition to postpartum psychosis, dissociative psychopathology and sociopathy have also been found to be associated with neonaticide in some cases
Sex selection may be one of the contributing factors of infanticide. In the absence of sex-selective abortion, sex-selective infanticide[dead link] can be deduced from very skewed birth statistics. The biologically normal sex ratio for humans at birth is approximately 105 males per 100 females; normal ratios hardly ranging beyond 102-108. When a society has an infant male to female ratio which is significantly higher or lower than the biological norm, and biased data can be ruled out, sex selection can usually be inferred.
Where a woman by any willful act or omission causes the death of her child, being a child under the age of twelve months, but at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child, then, notwithstanding that the circumstances were such that but for this section the offence would have amounted to murder, she shall be guilty of infanticide, and may for such offence be dealt with and punished as if she had been guilty of the offence of manslaughter of such child.
Compliant with the provisions of murder, as per s18A, the maximum penalty for this offence is therefore 25 years imprisonment.
Infanticide is illegal in India, but rarely enforced in the rural parts of India.
In Canada, a mother commits infanticide, a lesser offence than homicide, if she killed her child while "not fully recovered from the effects of giving birth to the child and by reason thereof or of the effect of lactation consequent on the birth of the child her mind is then disturbed".
England and Wales
In England and Wales, the Infanticide Act 1938 describes the offence of infanticide as one which would otherwise amount to murder (by his/her mother) if the victim was older than 12 months and the mother was not suffering from an imbalance of mind due to the effects of childbirth or lactation. Where a mother who has killed such an infant has been charged with murder rather than infanticide s.1(3) of the Act confirms that a jury has the power to find alternative verdicts of Manslaughter in English law or guilty but insane.
Article 200 of the Penal Code of Romania stipulates that the killing of a newborn during the first 24 hours, by the mother who is in a state of mental distress, shall be punished with imprisonment of one to five years. The previous Romanian Penal Code also defined infanticide (pruncucidere) as a distinct criminal offence, providing for a punishment of two to seven years imprisonment, recognizing the fact that a mother's judgment may be impaired immediately after birth, but did not define the term "infant", and this had led to debates regarding the precise moment when infanticide becomes homicide. This issue was resolved by the new Penal Code, which came into force in 2014.
In 2009, Texas state representative Jessica Farrar proposed legislation that would define infanticide as a distinct and lesser crime than homicide. Under the terms of the proposed legislation, if jurors concluded that a mother's "judgment was impaired as a result of the effects of giving birth or the effects of lactation following the birth," they would be allowed to convict her of the crime of infanticide, rather than murder. The maximum penalty for infanticide would be two years in prison. Farrar's introduction of this bill prompted liberal bioethics scholar Jacob M. Appel to call her "the bravest politician in America."
Since infanticide, especially neonaticide, is often a response to an unwanted birth, preventing unwanted pregnancies through improved sex education and increased contraceptive access are advocated as ways of preventing infanticide. Increased use of contraceptives and access to safe legal abortions:122–123 have greatly reduced neonaticide in many developed nations. Some say that where abortion is illegal, as in Pakistan, infanticide would decline if safer legal abortions were available.
Screening for psychiatric disorders or risk factors, and providing treatment or assistance to those at risk may help prevent infanticide. However, in developed world significant proportions of neonaticides that are detected occur in young women who deny their pregnancy, and avoid outside contacts, so they may have limited contact with health care services.
In some areas baby hatches or safe surrender sites, safe places for a mother to anonymously leave an infant, are offered, in part to reduce the rate of infanticide. In other places, like the United States, safe-haven laws allow mothers to anonymously give infants to designated officials; they are frequently located at hospitals and police and fire stations. Typically such babies are put up for adoption, or cared for in orphanages.
Granting women employment raises their status and autonomy. Having a gainful employment can raise the perceived worth of females. This can lead to an increase in the number of women getting an education and a decrease in the number of female infanticide. As a result, the infant mortality rate will decrease and economic development will increase.
Although human infanticide has been widely studied, the practice has been observed in many other species of the animal kingdom since it was first seriously studied by Yukimaru Sugiyama. These include from microscopic rotifers and insects, to fish, amphibians, birds and mammals, including primates such as chacma baboons. Infanticide can be practiced by both males and females.
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- This is a major issue in ancient and medieval demography. See Josiah Cox Russell, 1958, Late Ancient and Medieval Population, pp. 13-17. He notes evidence of sex-selective infanticide in the Roman world and very high sex ratios into the medieval world.
- Crimes Act 1900 - Section 22A Infanticide; see also "R v MB (No. 2)  NSWSC 1755". AustLii..
- Crimes Act 1900 - Section 18 Murder and manslaughter defined; see "Murray v The Queen (2002) 211 CLR 193". AustLii..
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