Most societies agree that the drive to protect and nurture one's infant is a basic human trait. Yet infanticide—the killing of an infant at the hands of a parent—has been an accepted practice for disposing of unwanted or deformed children since prehistoric times. Despite human repugnance for the act, most societies, both ancient and contemporary, have practiced infanticide. Based upon both historical and contemporary data, as many as 10 to 15 percent of all babies were killed by their parents. The anthropologist Laila Williamson notes that infanticide has been practiced by nearly all civilizations. Williamson concludes that infanticide must represent a common human trait, perhaps genetically encoded to promote self-survival.
Neonaticide is generally defined as "the homicide of an infant aged one week or less." The psychiatrist Phillip Resnick further limits neonaticide to the killing of an infant on the day of its birth. Infanticide in general usage is defined as "the homicide of a person older than one week but less than one year of age." Filicide is defined as "the homicide of a child (less than eighteen years of age) by his or her parent or stepparent." For the purposes of this entry, the term infanticide will be used to describe the act of child murder by the child's parent(s) regardless of the age of the victim.
Changing Views of the Nature of the Child
The helpless newborn has not always evoked a protective and loving response, in part because the newborn was not always believed to be human. This belief legitimized an action that under other circumstances would be referred to as murder. For example, the ancient Romans believed that the child was more like a plant than an animal until the seventh day after birth. During the Middle Ages, children born with physical defects or behavioral abnormalities were often viewed as evil or the product of supernatural forces. Changelings were infants believed to be exchanged in the still of the night by devils or goblins who removed the real child and left the changeling in its place. To view the child as potentially evil, dangerous, or worthless, rationalizes the desire to eliminate the burden or threat without guilt or remorse.
Historically, birth was not necessarily viewed as a transition to life. Common law in England presumed that a child was born dead. According to early Jewish law, an infant was not deemed viable until it was thirty days old. During the 1950s the chief rabbi of Israel, Ben Zion Uziel, said that if an infant who was not yet thirty days old was killed, the killer could not be executed because the infant's life was still in doubt. In Japan, a child was not considered to be a human being until it released its first cry, a sign that the spirit entered its body. Scientists and ethicists continue to disagree about when life begins, fueling the moral debate surrounding abortion and infanticide. The twenty-first-century moral philosopher Michael Tooley contends that neonates are not persons and as such neonaticide should not be classified as murder. Tooley has suggested that infanticide should be allowed during a brief (e.g., thirty-day) period after birth.
Several symbolic acts were indicative that the infant was indeed human and worthy of life. In many cultures, it was illegal to kill the child once the child was named, baptized, received its first taste of food, or swallowed water. Symbolic acts such as these afforded the child protection in the event that the child became an economic or emotional burden.
Legal Perspectives on Infanticide
Until the fourth century, infanticide was neither illegal nor immoral. Complete parental control of the father over the life of his child was dictated by both early Greek and Roman laws. Patria potestas refers to the power of the Roman father to decide the fate of his child, even before birth. However, if a mother killed her child she would be punished by death.
Legal sanctions against infanticide were introduced in the fourth century as Christianity infused secular laws. The Roman emperor Constantine, a Christian convert, proclaimed the slaying of a child by the child's father to be a crime. Infanticide was punishable by the death penalty by the end of the fourth century. Around the same time, the Christian emperor Valentinian declared that it was illegal for parents to fail to provide for their offspring. Thus, by the Middle Ages, infanticide was no longer condoned by either church or state in Europe. However, as a result of hard times and a high illegitimacy rate, infanticide was the most common crime in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century.
During the Renaissance period, the criminal justice system took a strong position against infanticide. Widespread poverty and political unrest throughout Europe resulted in high infant mortality rates. Legislation in France demanded the death penalty for mothers convicted of this crime. In 1720 Prussia's King Friedrich Wilhem I decreed that women who killed their children should be sewn into sacks and drowned. Infanticide has existed as a separate statutory crime in England since 1922. Under English legislation (the Infanticide Act of 1938), a mother who kills her child within the first year of the child's life is assumed to be mentally ill. The highest crime she can be charged with is manslaughter. English juries are reluctant to sentence women to prison for this crime, while fathers can be charged with homicide.
Early American parents found to be child killers were punished by death. In 1642 Massachusetts enacted a law making the concealment of a murdered illegitimate child a capital offense. Records indicate that executions for infanticide occurred as early as 1648.
Twenty-first-century America classifies infanticide as a homicide. Depending on state laws, those who commit infanticide may be eligible for the death penalty. Most of the mothers convicted are granted suspended sentences or probation. Fathers are generally not afforded the same leniency. Despite these laws, shame, illegitimacy, poverty, and the lack of effective birth control result in uncountable hidden infanticides.
Factors Leading to Infanticide through the Ages
In examining the numerous causes for infanticide, the physician and researcher Larry Milner contends that "infanticide arises from hardness of life rather than hardness of heart" (1998, p. 10). Perhaps the mother with the hardest of hearts was Medea who, according to Greek legend, killed her children as revenge against her unfaithful husband. The term Medea syndrome derives from this legend. The following factors represent examples of both hardness of life and hardness of heart.
Human sacrifice. Human sacrifice is one of the earliest recorded forms of infanticide. Archaeological evidence indicates that prehistoric children were sacrificed to the gods. In Germany, a mass burial grave dating back to 20000 B.C.E. was discovered, containing thirty-three skulls of children who appeared to be victims of sacrifice. Aztec children were sacrificed to the rain god Tlaloc. The Senjero tribe of eastern Africa sacrificed firstborn sons to assure a bountiful harvest. As late as 1843, children were sealed in walls, foundations of buildings, and bridges to strengthen the structure. Evidence of this practice dates back to the walls of Jericho. Lloyd deMause states, "To this day, when children play 'London Bridge is falling down' they are acting out a sacrifice to a river goddess when they catch the child at the end of the game" (1974, p. 27). By offering a valued possession to the gods, humans have long attempted to appease a deity.
Population control. One of the most common factors leading to infanticide is population control. Poverty, famine, and population control are inter-related factors. Where safe and effective birth control was unavailable, infanticide was used to selectively limit the growth of a community. Infanticide allowed for selection of the fittest or most desirable offspring, with sick, deformed, female, or multiple births targeted for disposal. Greek philosophers accepted the use of infanticide to control the size of the state. With regard to practicality, infanticide was not a crime. In a 1976 review of 393 populations, the anthropologists William Divale and Marvin Harris reported that 208 tribes routinely practiced infanticide, particularly female infanticide, to control population. Females were targeted because this practice reduced the number of sexually active, fertile females.
Poverty. Even when population growth was not a factor, poverty was the most common reason why parents killed their offspring. In ancient Greece and Rome, parents who could not afford to raise their children disposed of them, particularly during times of war, famine, and drought. At times children were killed and even consumed by the starving parents. Eskimo children were eaten by the parents and older siblings during times of famine. Cannibalism was common during times of drought among the Australian aboriginals, a people normally fond of their children. During extreme droughts, every second child was killed and fed to a preceding child to ensure its survival.
Devaluation of females. Female infanticide is a problem rooted in a culture of sexism throughout antiquity. In many cultures girls have little value. Even when female children were not killed at birth, their needs were neglected, particularly if limited resources were needed to ensure the survival of male offspring. In tribal societies, male babies were preferred because males grew up to be hunters and warriors. Young females were seen as a threat because they might attract males from neighboring tribes.
Data indicating high male-to-female population ratios indicate selective female infanticide. Sex-ratio evidence suggests that female infanticide dates back to Greco-Roman times. Men were more valuable as laborers and warriors. Females required a costly marriage dowry. A common Roman expression was, "Everyone raises a son, including a poor man, but even a rich man will abandon a daughter" (Milner 1998, p. 160). Unequal sex ratios have been reported throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance worldwide. Evidence from tribal societies also suggests that tribal peoples used female infanticide as the primary method to control population.
In China, a poor and overcrowded country, females are expendable. Evidence of female infanticide in China dates back to 800 B.C.E. Females are viewed as less desirable in Chinese culture due to the expense involved in the dowry system and the fact that only a son can perpetuate the family line. Additionally, when a girl marries she leaves her family and is unavailable to care for her aging parents. With the implementation of the "one child per couple" policy in 1978, Chinese parents are unwilling to invest their one opportunity for parenthood on a daughter. The policy provided for enforced abortions, sterilizations, and legal/economic sanctions against families who choose not to comply. Although illegal, sex-selective abortion is a common practice. Estimates based upon unequal sex ratios suggest that over 30 million females are missing in China.
In India, the practice of female infanticide is even more pervasive. As in China, the birth of a daughter is seen as a liability. Only sons are allowed to perform the funeral rites at the pyre of his father. The murder of female newborns is so common that it has a special name, kuzhippa, or "baby intended for the burial pit" (Milner 1998, p. 176). Selective abortion is also a common practice. In 1998 Milner reported that in one Bombay clinic, of 8,000 abortions, 7,999 were performed on female fetuses. In 1991 Nicholas Kristof estimated that nearly 30 million females were missing in India.
Birth defects. Deformed or defective newborns have been disposed of by most cultures across the ages. From an evolutionary standpoint, parents decide whether to invest their energy in raising a deformed or sick child that may not survive to perpetuate the family lines. Aristotle declared that there should be a law that no deformed child should live. In the twenty-first century, medical advances present new challenges to parents who are forced to decide whether to use heroic measures to save the life of severely impaired newborns or to let them die.
Illegitimacy. Illegitimacy is another factor leading to infanticide through the ages. To avoid shame and censure, women have secretively disposed of illegitimate babies since early Roman times. Illegitimacy and poverty are the most common reasons for infanticide in the twenty-first century.
Superstition. Finally, superstitious beliefs regarding children and childbirth contributed to the practice of infanticide. In many cultures, twins were believed to be evil and were promptly killed. In some tribal societies, twins of the opposite gender were believed to have committed incest in the womb and were condemned. In some cases only one twin was killed. Other superstitions involve unlucky days of the week, breech presentations, the presence of baby teeth at birth, or atmospheric conditions during birth. Ignorance, fear, and legend have contributed to the deaths of infants throughout the ages.
Methods of Infanticide throughout the Ages
As the factors leading to the practice of infanticide vary from culture to culture and age to age, so do the methods of disposal. Clearly some methods reflect cultural beliefs regarding the value of children. Other methods reflect ignorance about the proper care of infants.
Abandonment and exposure. Abandonment or exposure represents one of the oldest methods of infanticide. History is replete with stories of babies abandoned and left to die as a result of starvation, dehydration, or animal attack. Despite the parent's naive belief that the child would be rescued, most abandoned children perished. Ancient Greeks and Romans readily accepted the practice of exposure to eliminate unwanted, deformed, or illegitimate children. Historians estimate that 20 to 40 percent of all babies were abandoned during the later Roman Empire. Abandoned babies were generally brought to a conspicuous place where they were left on display. Most of these babies were taken and raised, while some were sold into slavery or prostitution.
During the Middle Ages, exposure was a prevalent practice due to overpopulation and the large numbers of illegitimate births. During the Renaissance in Italy, the abandonment rate was in excess of 50 percent of all babies. In seventeenth-century China, Jesuit missionaries reported that thousands of infants, mostly female, were deposited in the streets. In 1741 Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain, was so disturbed by the sight of infant corpses lying in the gutters and rotting on dung heaps that he opened Foundling Hospital in England to "suppress the inhuman custom of exposing new-born infants to perish in the streets" (Langer 1974, p. 358).
Suffocation. Suffocation has been one of the most common methods of infanticide throughout the ages. "Overlaying," the practice of suffocating or smothering an infant in bed, occurred in medieval England. Overlaying remained a problem in England into the twentieth century. In 1894 a London coroner reported that over 1,000 infants died as a result of overlaying. Subsequently, in 1909, overlaying was made a criminal offense. Differentiating accidental death from intentional suffocation continues to present a legal challenge. For example, distinguishing between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation is a difficult yet critical diagnostic decision.
Drowning. The practice of drowning unwanted infants at birth is a long held practice in China. The anthropologist Steven Mosher describes how a bucket of water is readied at the bedside to drown female newborns. This practice was so prevalent in 1943 that an official government publication prohibited the drowning of infant girls. Unfortunately, the decree had little effect. Similarly, infant girls born in India were often drowned in a pit filled with milk, referred to as "making them drink milk" (Milner 1998, p. 175).
Ignorance, neglect, and abuse. Historically, children were subjected to mistreatment and death as a result of simple ignorance about proper care. For example, opium and liquor were commonly given to infants to calm and induce sleep. Godfrey's cordial, a mixture of opium, treacle, and sassafras available in the nineteenth century, proved as fatal as arsenic.
Infants also died of starvation, as a result of neglect, poverty, and punishment. Wet nurses were commonly hired throughout history. Maliciously, many of the wet nurses took on more infants than they could feed. It was a well-known fact to parents that infants died at a far higher rate in the care of wet nurses than with their parents.
Swaddling or restraining infants to calm or contain their movements has been a near universal practice, although it was almost entirely discontinued in the United States and England by the end of the eighteenth century. If performed improperly, swaddling can result in suffocation and permanent injury. Swaddled infants could be "laid for hours behind the hot oven, hung on pegs on the wall, placed in tubs and in general left like a parcel in every convenient corner" (deMause 1974, p. 37). DeMause describes how fatal accidents frequently befell children because little children were left alone for extended periods. Dating back to Roman times, infants were exposed to hypothermia through the therapeutic practice of dipping children in icy-cold waters to harden or toughen the character. DeMause reports that the eighteenth-century pediatrician William Buchanan stated that nearly half of the human species died in infancy as a result of ignorance and improper care.
In the twenty-first century the most prevalent methods of infanticide are head trauma, drowning, suffocation, and strangulation. Shaken-baby syndrome, brain injury as a result of violent shaking, is a common phenomenon.
The newborn has been afforded some protection through the beliefs of God-fearing people. Judeo-Christian morals prohibited infanticide as the will of God. According to Jewish beliefs, one can never know whether the child conceived may be the long-awaited Savior. As a result, the Torah demanded that married couples procreate and Jewish law prohibited the killing of children. Abortion and neonaticide, however, were allowed.
The prevalence of infanticide in ancient Rome began to diminish around the time of Jesus Christ. The Christian Church condemned the practice of exposure, particularly if the exposed infant was unbaptized. It was believed that upon his or her death an unbaptized child would be prevented from entering the gates of heaven. As a result, stricter penalties were given to mothers who killed unbaptized infants. Similarly, in Islam, Muhammad admonished parents for preferring male offspring and warned against the evils of infanticide. With the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire, Judeo-Christian ethics were infused with secular law.
Infanticide in Modern America
Do murderous parents still act more out of hardness of life than hardness of heart? In a 2001 news report, a Texas woman confessed to drowning her five children in the bathtub. Her family stated that she had been suffering from postpartum depression. An Illinois woman who drugged and suffocated her three young children claimed insanity at the time of the murders. Both women were found guilty of murder and faced life in prison. The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a rash of so-called trashcan moms who gave birth in seclusion, killed the newborns, and deposited their bodies in the trash. A teenage girl delivered a six-pound boy during her prom, disposed of the infant, and returned to the dance floor. In 2001 a Tennessee woman reportedly gave birth secretively, slashed her infant's throat, wrapped her in garbage bags, and left her in the car trunk to die.
In 1995 the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect estimated that nearly 2,000 infants and young children die each year from abuse or neglect. Fatal abuse may result from one incident (e.g., shaking the baby) or repeated abuse and neglect over a period of time. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, approximately 700 homicide victims under the age of six were reported in 1997; the majority (71%) of these children were murdered by a parent. Ten percent of these children were murdered during the first six days of their life.
Many researchers believe that child fatalities are underreported because some deaths labeled as accidents or SIDS are, in fact, homicides. Waneta Hoyt claimed to have lost all five of her children to SIDS, leading researchers to suspect SIDS ran in families and was caused by sleep apnea. In 1995 Hoyt confessed to suffocating all five of her children. As a result, researchers were forced to reexamine the causes of SIDS.
The risk of child homicide declines with child age. Children under the age of five are the most frequent victims of fatalities. Children under the age of three account for 77 percent of all child fatalities. Male children are slightly more at risk than female. Five percent of these deaths occurred on the infant's first day of life. Nearly all of these infants were not born in a hospital. In fact, most neonaticides probably go undetected. Infants under one week of age are most likely to be killed by their mothers, whereas after the first week of life the perpetrator is more likely to be the father or stepfather. Researchers disagree as to whether mothers or fathers are more likely, in general, to kill their offspring.
Parents who kill are most often poor, single, and under the age of nineteen. They most likely live in rural areas and do not have a high school diploma. If female, they are likely to have an older child and have not received prenatal care. Female perpetrators show a variety of other risk factors including regular drug and alcohol usage, history of depression, childhood history of inadequate parenting and abuse, current involvement with an abusive partner, history of self-abuse, and lack of social support. Approximately 15 to 30 percent of all mothers who kill their children commit suicide. Of the fathers who murder their children, 40 to 60 percent commit suicide. Infanticide continues to be associated with difficult life circumstances.
Phillip Resnick argues that mothers who kill actually fall into two distinct groups. Mothers who kill their infant on the day of its birth (neonaticide) do not generally show signs of psychopathology. Mothers who commit neonaticide tend to be young, single, and immature, and kill to eliminate an unwanted child. Mothers who kill their older children (filicide) are frequently older, married, psychotic, depressed, or suicidal. Filicides tend to kill as a result of their psychosis, for altruistic reasons (to relieve child of suffering), accidentally (as in battered child syndrome), or to seek revenge on a spouse. Resnick notes that mothers who commit neonaticide are more likely to be incarcerated, whereas mothers who commit filicide are more likely to be hospitalized.
Legal debate centers on the use of postpartum depression as a legal defense in infanticide (homicide) cases. The American Psychiatric Association first recognized postpartum depression (PPD) in 1994. Since then, American courts have begun to recognize PPD as a legitimate defense, although it has rarely been used successfully. Approximately 20 percent of all new mothers experience PPD, a serious and lasting depression. One out of every thousand new mothers will experience psychotic symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, and incoherent thinking. Because British law has long assumed that mothers who kill suffer from mental illness, British doctors treat PPD aggressively and British courts rule with more leniency than American courts. Many researchers suggest that the United States should follow the British approach.
Alternatives and Prevention
One of the earliest methods of saving illegitimate and abandoned babies was the formation of foundling homes (orphanages). The first foundling home was opened in 787 C.E. in Italy. Foundling homes were opened across Europe, quickly filling to capacity. Placing a child in a foundling home was little more than infanticide in a hidden form. In Dublin, the foundling hospital had a revolving basket placed at the front gate to provide parents anonymity as they deposited their unwanted children. Roughly 85 percent of infants placed in these homes died as a result of inadequate care. The orphanages in twenty-first-century China bear striking similarity to these early foundling homes. During a period of economic hardship in Hungary in 1996, a hospital placed an incubator by the hospital entrance to provide poor parents an alternative to killing their infants.
Several authors contend that the legalization of abortion has resulted in decreased rates of infanticide. Pro-life supporters counter that abortion represents nothing more than preterm infanticide. However, the so-called trashcan moms have access to both legalized abortion and birth control, yet fail to utilize either option. Resnick contends that the passive nature of these women contributes to denial of their pregnancy, preventing them from seeking an abortion. Perhaps the best form of prevention for young women most at risk for neonaticide comes from abstinence or effective contraceptive use.
The research by Mary D. Overpeck and her colleagues suggests early intervention strategies to prevent infanticide in high-risk individuals. For example, identification of women who are hiding their pregnancies can improve access to prenatal care. Screening parents for emotional problems (including family history of postpartum depression) may increase access to mental health services. According to Overpeck, interventions targeting social support, completion of education, parenting training, contraceptive education, and substance abuse are critically needed. Finally, diagnosis and aggressive treatment for postpartum depression for all mothers constitutes an essential health care need.
With increasing reports of abandoned babies, legislators are searching for alternative methods to protect newborns. The U.S. Congress and over half of the states are considering legislation to decriminalize the abandonment of newborns in designated safe locations. Immunity from prosecution is afforded to those parents who leave the infant in designated locations. Critics contend that such legislation will result in encouraging parents to abandon their infants. However, baby abandonment legislation is a growing trend across the United States.
The reasons why parents choose to destroy their offspring are complicated and defy simple explanation. In the past, harsh conditions and lack of information contributed to the problem. In modern times harsh conditions continue to drive infanticide rates. Are these parents unfortunate, evil, selfish, or mentally ill? Perhaps the answer lies in a combination of these explanations. Understanding the causes of infanticide can only lead to better means of prevention.
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DIANNE R. MORAN