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Infanticide is the practice of intentionally killing human newborns. Because the term infant descends from a Latin word that means not speaking, infanticide should be distinguished from feticide, or abortion, intentionally killing fetuses, on the one hand, and felicide, intentionally killing children who are mature enough to speak, particularly one's own, on the other.

Infanticide has been practiced all over the world throughout the whole of human history. Newborns who have not yet learned to talk have been intentionally killed because they were thought to be:

  1. terminally ill;
  2. experiencing unbearable pain or suffering;
  3. born with unacceptable anomalies;
  4. of the wrong gender, race, class, maternity, or paternity;
  5. political threats;
  6. economic threats;
  7. fitting sacrifices in religious rituals; and
  8. embarrassing, frustrating, or inconvenient.

The single most common reason for the practice of infanticide in the past and present has been the desire to be rid of female newborns. The histories of infanticide and gender bias are interwoven. Not to study them together is to overlook their interdependence.

Human newborns, particularly females, have been intentionally killed in many ways. They have been incinerated, decapitated, and suffocated. They have also been sundered, stabbed, stoned, shot, hung, drowned, struck, shaken, stomped, crushed, raped, poisoned, buried, starved, fed to animals, and exposed to the elements. They have been denied air, food, water, warmth, and protection from diseases. Their blood vessels have been injected with toxic substances and bubbles of air. It is impossible to understand the history of infanticide without taking into account its diverse and often cruel methods.

In many societies infanticide was not only tolerated but also sometimes promoted as a solution to the problem of unwanted infants, whether deformed or healthy. This entry provides a historical account of infanticide in Western societies, beginning with its practice in Graeco-Roman antiquity and concluding with modern evidence.

Infanticide in Antiquity

In Greek society, an infant's worth was measured by its potential to fulfill a useful function in society. Thus Plato, in his Republic, maintained that society was better served if deformed newborns were "hidden away, in some appropriate manner that must be kept secret," a practice that likely included infanticide (460). Similarly Aristotle wrote in Politics: "As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live." Aristotle also condoned abandonment as a method of population control, although he recommended early abortion in regions where the "regular customs hinder any of those born being exposed" (1335b). In Sparta, where military strength was highly valued, infanticide may have reached its zenith. In Life of Lycurgus, Plutarch gives an account of the Spartan custom: "But if it was ill born and deformed they sent it to … a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taygetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well-equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage, either to itself or to the state" (16).

It is difficult to distinguish between infanticide, with the intent to kill the infant, and abandonment, which may or may not have involved this intention. Failure to distinguish between the two has made accurate assessment of each difficult (Boswell). Historians have generally interpreted the Greek word for abandonment, translated as "exposure, putting out, or hiding away," as equivalent to infanticide. However, the Greek terms for abandonment do not convey the sense of injury or harm associated with infanticide. Historical evidence is not clear as to whether abandoned infants usually died or if those who abandoned them intended their death. Often abandonment was viewed as an alternative to infanticide. Nevertheless it is reasonable to infer that some deformed and healthy infants, particularly females, were exposed with the intent that they would not survive. Further it is likely that direct infanticide was practiced for both eugenic purposes and population control. Laws neither prohibited the killing of defective infants nor protected healthy infants from death by exposure.

Evidence from classical sources suggests that infanticide was practiced widely and with impunity in Roman society. While Romans continued the practice of disposing of defective infants for eugenic and economic reasons, an additional motivation stemmed from the Roman belief in the phenomenon of unnatural events, or prodigia (Amundsen). The Greeks saw deformities in newborns as natural occurrences. In contrast the Romans viewed portentosi, meaning unnatural or monstrous births, as ominous or numinous signs that needed to be destroyed in order to rid the community of guilt and fear. The historian Livy of the first century b.c.e. wrote, in Histories, about the birth of an infant who was both unusually large and of indeterminate gender:

[M]en were troubled again by the report that at Frusino there had been born a child as large as a four year old, and not so much a wonder for size as because … it was uncertain whether male or female. In fact the soothsayers summoned from Etruria said it was a terrible and loathsome portent; it must be removed from Roman territory, far away from contact with earth, and drowned in the sea. They put it alive into a chest, carried it out to sea and threw it overboard. (37.27)

Roman literature is rife with testimony to such killings. According to the Laws of the Twelve Tables (fifth century b.c.e., considered to be the basis of Roman law), deformed children, puer ad deformitatem, were to be killed quickly. Historians disagree whether the law required that these infants be killed or whether it merely allowed infanticide. In any case Roman society appears to have accepted infanticide as a reasonable solution to the problem of deformed infants both for eugenic and superstitious motives. In a gynecological treatise entitled "How to Recognize a Newborn Worth Rearing," the Graeco-Roman physician Soranus (first–second century c.e.) specifies that such an infant "immediately cries with proper vigor, is perfect in all its parts, members and senses [and] has been born at the due time, best at the end of nine months. And by conditions contrary to those mentioned, the infant not worth rearing is recognized" (Gynecology, p. 79–80).

In his Moral Essays, Seneca argued that the practice of infanticide is rationally motivated: "Mad dogs we knock on the head; the fierce and savage ox we slay; sickly sheep we put to the knife to keep them from infecting the flock; unnatural progeny we destroy; we drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound" (1.15). Even if it were not legally mandated, it is unlikely infanticide was penalized in Roman society given the tradition of patria potestas, which granted fathers absolute authority over other members of the family. Roman fathers had power of life and death over their children and were allowed to execute even a grown son (Boswell). The most likely victims, however, were infants, especially deformed ones and female children who—even when healthy—were considered of little social value.

Some Roman philosophers objected to abandonment and infanticide. Musonius Rufus, writing in the first century c.e., opposed infanticide because it reduced the population. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher and a contemporary of Musonius, condemned abandonment as a violation of the natural affection that parents should have for their offspring. Such apparent concern for the infant was not based on a belief in the child's intrinsic right to life, but was motivated by the desires to follow natural law and to increase the population. Thus, although evidence for the practice of infanticide under the Roman empire is somewhat inconclusive, Roman law and custom apparently did not prohibit parents from killing their children.

Early Jewish and Christian Traditions

The people of ancient Israel were acquainted with infanticide, particularly as it was practiced in the religious rituals of their neighbors. As evidenced by the frequency and vigor with which infanticide was denounced by their leaders, it appears that some Israelites were attracted to it. The ancient story of Abraham's apparent willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, who was not an infant but a young man, only to be instructed by a heavenly messenger to kill a ram instead, was told and retold over the centuries (Genesis 22). Among other things, the recitation of this story reiterated a preference for animal sacrifices in Israel's religious rituals, at least until the some of Israel's prophets condemned that practice too.

Jewish scholars were thus among the first to clearly condemn the killing of infants. Jews believed that humans were created in the image of their creator, Yahweh. Hence all human life was sacred from the moment of birth. The Torah speaks of defective individuals as Yahweh's creations and it mandates protection to the blind, the deaf, the weak, and others who are needy (Leviticus 19:14). Human life had intrinsic value by virtue of divine endowment, not merely instrumental value by virtue of social utility, as in classical Greek and Roman society.

The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo denounced infanticide and emphasized adults's duties toward children. His account equated abandonment with infanticide:

Some [parents] do the deed with their own hands; with monstrous cruelty and barbarity they stifle and throttle the first breath which the infants draw or throw them into a river or into the depths of the sea, after attaching some heavy substance to make them sink more quickly under its weight. Others take them to be exposed in some desert place, hoping, they themselves say, that they may be saved, but leaving them in actual truth to suffer the most distressing fate. For all the beasts that feed in human flesh visit the spot and feast unhindered on the infants, a fine banquet provided by their sole guardians, those who above all others should keep them safe, their fathers and mothers.

Philo further condemned the practice, in Works, by claiming, "Infanticide undoubtedly is murder, since the displeasure of the law is not concerned with ages but with a breach to the human race" (Vol. 7).

However, it was the advent of Christianity, rooted in Judaism, that significantly altered public attitudes toward the practice of infanticide. Christians inherited the Jewish doctrine that humans were divinely created, including the emphasis on the sanctity of all human life. They also recalled with horror the New Testament report that King Herod had slaughtered many infants in his attempts to exterminate the infant Jesus (Matthew 2). Believers were urged to emulate Christ's self-sacrificing love through benevolence and charity, providing a new rationale for philanthropy (Ferngren, 1987a). The consequences of this philanthropy were seen in Christian charities and endeavors for the poor, the sick, and the needy. Rescue and care of exposed infants was viewed as a special Christian duty. During the medieval period through the nineteenth century, Christians established foundling hospitals, and institutions for abandoned and unwanted children.

Two other Christian concepts important for their effect on the practice of infanticide were original sin and its correlative ritual of infant baptism, thought to have become common during the third century. Christians believed that infants who died without baptism were condemned to eternal hell. Because baptisms were performed only on holy days, not necessarily soon after birth, many parents already were committed to raising the child by the time of the ritual. Thus baptism served as an important deterrent to both abandonment and infanticide.

Although Jews and Christians vigorously opposed infanticide, their opposition had little impact until Christianity became widespread and officially recognized in the fourth century. A church council in Spain issued the first canon against infanticide in 305 c.e., and soon after, both local and ecumenical councils throughout Europe took similar actions. The penalty prescribed by the church for infanticide was either penance or excommunication.

The first secular law concerning the killing of children was issued in 318 c.e. by Constantine, the first Christian emperor. However, the law mentions children killing parents as well as parents killing children and thus was not directed specifically against infanticide. In 374 c.e. Valentinian enacted legislation declaring infanticide to be murder and punishable by law. Soon after a statute was issued that appears to have prohibited exposure of infants. Although Christian emperors promulgated many laws reflecting Christian morality, fear of losing salvation made the penitential system of the churches far more effective in influencing moral behavior than did state legislation. Church leaders continued to put pressure on the state, bringing about a series of legal codes aimed at protecting newborn children.

Although the laws did not distinguish between healthy and defective infants, one may assume that Christian condemnation of infanticide extended to all infants. Early Christian apologists reflect this position. In City of God, Saint Augustine (354–430) argued that differences between healthy and deformed people should be seen in the same light as racial and ethnic diversity:

If whole peoples have been monsters, we must explain the phenomenon as we explain the individual monsters who are born among us. God is the Creator of all; He knows best where and when and what is, or was, best for Him to create, since He deliberately fashioned the beauty of the whole out of both the similarity and dis-similarity of its parts.… It would be impossible to list all the human offspring who have been very different from the parents from whom they were certainly born. Still all these monsters undeniably owe their origin to Adam. (16.8)

Augustine's writings show a concern for children unusual in his time, placing the infant and the child under the protection of the Lord.

Despite decisive changes in attitudes and laws, infanticide persisted even after the official triumph of Christianity as the imperial religion. While the practice may have diminished, episodic killing of infants continued throughout Western history. What changed in subsequent periods were the motivations, methods, and penalties associated with infanticide as well as the options available to parents of unwanted children.

Medieval Period

Christianity's beliefs mixed with pagan myth, superstition, and folklore during Europe's medieval period. This commingling had significant implications for deformed infants and the practice of infanticide. Some thought, for example, that parental sexual behavior or ill-timed passions generated abnormal births or that sexual relations during menstruation, pregnancy, or lactation resulted in dire consequences for the unborn. In addition the birth of an anomalous infant was sometimes attributed to demonic intervention: Such births were seen as the product of either a sexual liaison between the mother/witch and the devil or a changeling left by the devil as punishment for parental sins. Parents, particularly mothers, were held morally responsible for their infants's abnormalities.

The changeling myth, derived from pagan sources, maintained that fairies, motivated by jealousy, substituted an elf child for the real child (Haffter). This version did not impute guilt to the parents; instead, blame was placed on demon fairies of the underworld and their envy of humans. Once the myth was Christianized, however, it became the devil who stole the real child and left a demon-child in its place. Thus God allowed parents to be punished for impiety or for bearing children outside matrimony. This change transformed the rationalization for the birth of defective infants from external forces to parental responsibility. Brutal and frequently lethal methods were employed either to exorcise the devil from the child or to compel the devil to return the normal child. Few infants survived the ordeal. However violent infanticide of this sort was probably the exception rather than the rule, even during the Middle Ages.

There was some secular legislation against infanticide, particularly in the later medieval period, and the crime was usually considered to be homicide. But overlaying (suffocation in the parental bed), the most frequent cause of infanticide, was easy to conceal and intent was nearly impossible to establish, thus making prosecution extremely difficult. When cases of infanticide did reach secular courts, the accused were readily acquitted on pleas of insanity or poverty. Secular authorities displayed remarkable ambivalence toward the killing of infants. By law it was considered a serious crime, yet in practice it was generally excused (Damme).

Throughout most of the medieval period, infanticide was regulated largely by church courts rather than civil courts. Ecclesiastical penalties for married women convicted of infanticide were also remarkably light, considering the Church's position. Punishment involved penance and was comparable to that imposed for sexual offenses such as adultery and fornication. Once the penance had been performed, the guilty person was not prosecuted in civil courts. The relatively light penance and the failure of secular authorities to prosecute cases of infanticide suggests that the crime was considered something less than homicide (Helmholz). Cases involving unwed mothers, however, were treated differently. Unmarried mothers who killed their infants were often accused of being witches. In fact, infanticide was the most common charge brought against witches during the Middle Ages. Unlike their married counterparts, alleged witches were punished severely, usually by drowning, burial alive, or impalement.

The only reference to the status of infants under medieval secular laws was a civil law definition of a freeman (in the law "Of Different Kinds of Children"), which appears to have excluded both illegitimate and seriously deformed infants from what little protection the law offered: "Among freemen there may not be reckoned those who are born of unlawful intercourse … nor those who are created pervertedly, against the way of human kind, as for example, if a woman bring forth a monster or a prodigy" (Fleta 1.5). As legal historian Catherine Damme comments, "Clearly, these pitiful non-persons were vulnerable to the murderous attacks of their progenitors" (p. 7).

Although direct infanticide was practiced to some extent, the more common and insidious cause of infant death during the Middle Ages was abandonment. The distinction between infanticide and abandonment became increasingly important because abandonment was generally regarded as a venial offense, punishable only if the child died. In the early-Middle Ages, abandonment was widespread, motivated primarily by poverty and illegitimacy. Although a few churchmen believed it was equivalent to infanticide, two forms of abandonment were virtually institutionalized: oblation (or donating infants to the Church) and leaving infants at foundling hospitals. From a Christian point of view, both were improvements over the morally objectionable practices of exposure and infanticide. A canonical decree of the tenth century urged women to leave their illegitimate infants at the church rather than kill them (Boswell). Although oblates were tied irrevocably to the Church for life, the Church provided food, clothing, and a secure monastic life.

Foundling homes were established to diminish the practice of exposure and to provide a humane solution to infanticide. In reality, however, the foundling home often was equivalent to consigning the child to death through neglect, disease, and sometimes more direct action. Once infants arrived at a foundling home, they frequently were sent to the country with a wet nurse who was likely to be negligent and more interested in a steady flow of babies than in nurturing. Death rates were high, especially for female infants (Trexler). Markedly high demographic ratios of males to females throughout Europe during this period suggest that selective female infanticide may have been widely practiced. The disparity between male and female deaths was probably due to greater social value for males and a greater likelihood that, when put into foundling homes, they would be reclaimed by their parents. Thus such institutions did little to secure the lives of unwanted infants. They were successful only in transferring the problem of unwanted infants from a public arena to an institutional one, shielding society from the realities of abandoned children and possibly encouraging the very practice they were intended to alleviate.

Renaissance and Reformation

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a concerted effort to stem the practice of infanticide throughout Europe. Despite a dramatic surge in reported cases, it is not clear whether or not the increase meant more frequent practice; urbanization undoubtedly made it more difficult to destroy infants secretly. Authorities were more successful at promulgating harsh legislation aimed at ending the practice and were also increasingly vigilant in prosecuting murdering mothers. An intense focus on the problems of poverty and sexual promiscuity and their purported ties to infanticide led to laws that were strongly moral in tone and selective against unmarried mothers.

The first attempt to strengthen and unify infanticide laws under the Holy Roman Empire was a statute known as the Carolina, issued in 1532 by Emperor Charles V. The law decreed that those found guilty were to be buried alive, or impaled, or drowned. The law also made concealment of pregnancy a crime, as it was presumed that such secrecy indicated infanticidal intentions. Many judges, under the pretext of the Carolina, "engaged in a policy of terror," the most notorious being the Saxon jurist Benedict Carpozof, who claimed that he assisted in the executions of 20,000 women (Piers, p. 69). The Carolina was only the first in a series of laws over the next few centuries that dealt severely with alleged infanticidal mothers.

In England Henry VIII's split from the Roman Catholic church resulted in increased secular control. Growing concern about sexual immorality and criminality among the swelling numbers of urban poor led to the enactment of several social control laws. The Poor Law of 1576 (18 Eliz. I, c.3) made bearing bastard children a crime. The fact that punishment was severe and involved substantial social dis-grace for the mother increased the incentive for these women to commit infanticide. It is not surprising, therefore, that English criminal court records show that the number of indictments and guilty verdicts for infanticide rose dramatically after 1576. Most cases involved bastard children, and concealment of pregnancy was mentioned frequently (Hoffer and Hull).

The reasons for the increased zeal in punishing illegitimacy are somewhat obscure, but Puritan interests seem to have played a role. The 1623 Jacobean infanticide statute (21 Jac. I, c.27), influenced by the Puritan element in parliament, allowed courts to convict on the basis of circumstantial evidence of concealment and prior sexual misconduct. The law presumed that the child was born alive and then killed unless the mother could prove otherwise. Prosecutions of infanticide showed a fourfold increase immediately following its enactment (Hoffer and Hull).

Ideas about the role of witches in the death of infants, even the deaths of children in foundling hospitals, persisted. Infanticide and witchcraft were so strongly interrelated during this period that their rates of indictments rose and fell in parallel. Witchcraft continued to play a major part in the drama of infanticide until the early 1800s.

Foundling hospitals continued to remove unwanted and abandoned children from public view throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As in earlier centuries, the fate of these children was precarious. Overcrowded conditions, disease, lack of enough wet nurses, and general neglect continued to claim the lives of many of the institutions's charges.

The overwhelming majority of the victims of infanticide during this period were children born out of wedlock. Demographic information does not show the strong gender bias seen in the medieval years, nor is there evidence that defective newborns were consistently selected out. Apparently the shame associated with immoral sexual behavior was the primary selective force associated with the killing of infants.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

In the eighteenth century, a steep decline occurred in indictments for infanticide; the courts showed greater leniency toward those accused of killing their children. In addition illegitimacy was more common; as a result the stigma associated with it lessened and its strong correlation to infanticide began to diminish. Attitudes toward parenting changed as well, with a new emphasis on the emotional nurturing of children. Wet-nursing lost popularity, and it became more common for children to spend their early months with their mothers. The greater value placed on children resulted in increased beneficence in child rearing, and so parents were probably less likely to kill their offspring. In any case juries were less willing to convict parents of infanticide solely on the basis of concealment.

New defenses for the suspected infanticidal mother were developed and more readily accepted by juries. One of the first of these defenses, known as benefit of linen, was based on evidence that the mother had made linen for the baby before its birth and therefore had no intention to kill it. This line of argument became very popular after 1700 and virtually guaranteed acquittal. Another major defense commonly used was the want of help plea. Various accidents and calamities, such as failure to tie the umbilical cord, falls of either the mother or baby, illness of the mother, and unheeded cries for help, all effectively helped to sway jurors.

Efforts to reform the English infanticide statute of 1624 began in 1773 but were not successful until 1803. In the ambivalence of eighteenth-century English society, infanticide was considered homicide yet somehow not quite the equivalent of killing an adult. Despite the failure of reform resolutions until the nineteenth century, juries tended to ignore the severe infanticide law aimed selectively at unwed mothers.

A similar trend occurred in Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great. In his Dissertation sur les raisons d'établir ou d'abroger les lois (1756), Frederick argued that the prevalence of infanticide was due to the harsh penalties for illegitimacy. He therefore abolished laws penalizing pregnancies out of wedlock and eventually provided legal protection for unwed mothers. Scholars throughout Europe, including Cesare Beccaria, Voltaire, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, also called for legal reform and urged authorities to prevent the circumstances leading to infanticide.

Despite moderately successful reform efforts, however, infanticide did not disappear. During the nineteenth century high rates of illegitimate births continued; so, consequently, did infant killing. Corpses of infants found in privies, parks, rivers, and other public places fueled the perception that infanticide was reaching intolerable proportions. This perception may or may not have represented an actual increase in the incidence of the crime, but it did serve to stimulate an unprecedented public outcry. By the mid-nineteenth century, the concern over the slaughter of innocents appeared in the press (Behlmer). The British newspaper Morning Star (June 23, 1863) declared, "This crime is positively becoming a national institution"; and the Pall Mall Gazette (April 30, 1866) protested, "It is exceedingly unpleasant to find ourselves stigmatized in foreign newspapers … as a nation of infanticides.… 13,000 children are yearly murdered by their mothers in heretical England." The Saturday Review (1865, p. 161–162) asserted that infanticide "is the characteristic at once of the rudest barbarism and of that more terrible epoch of national life when the wheel has gone its full circle, and society falls to pieces by the vices of civilization."

Physicians were among those who led reform efforts. In his essay on infanticide in 1862, William Burke Ryan wrote passionately against the horrors of infant murder; he and several colleagues formed the Infant Life Protection Society. By 1870 the group had achieved many of its goals, including mandatory registration of all births. In 1872 Parliament passed the first Infant Life Protection Act requiring registration of all baby farms, houses with more than one child under the age of one.

Legal prosecution of infanticide also underwent significant changes. Ellenborough's Act of 1803, which replaced the Infanticide Act of 1623, reinstated the common-law presumption of stillbirth, shifting the burden of proof from the defendant (mother) back to the prosecutor. In 1828 the law was expanded to include legitimate as well as illegitimate births, removing the obvious selection against unwed mothers. The fact that courts consistently acquitted the accused or mitigated penalties on the basis of insanity is testimony to the court's continued hesitancy to consider infanticide the moral equivalent of murder. There was a "visceral feeling that such a crime simply could not be a rational act.… [t]he minds of the jury and jurist could not accept that such a heinous act could be committed by a rational person—the accused's mind had to be deranged, if only temporarily" (Damme, p. 14).

Twentieth Century

The most notorious instances of infanticide in the twentieth century were committed secretly in Nazi Germany, under the auspices of the Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe, Genetically Determined Illness. Doctors, nurses, and teachers were required to register all children with congenital abnormalities or mental retardation. Failure to comply meant civil penalties or imprisonment. Defective children were removed from their homes and routinely euthanized at hospitals by morphine injection, gas, lethal poisons, or sometimes starvation. To ensure secrecy, the bodies were cremated immediately. Parents who protected their children were sent to labor camps and their children were taken from them. Documents reveal substantial public support for the euthanasia of defective children, even from parents with abnormal children (Proctor).

Calls for legalized euthanasia also arose from the United States, where it was justified primarily as a way of limiting the social costs associated with defective infants. W. A. Gould, writing in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy, cited the "elimination of the unfit" in ancient Sparta as a defense of the economic arguments for euthanasia in the twentieth century (Gould). In 1938 W. G. Lennox advocated the "privilege of death for the congenitally mindless and for the incurable sick who wish to die" because saving these lives "adds a load to the back of society" (Lennox, p. 454). But as the realities of the Nazi extermination programs began to surface in the United States in the 1940s, promotion of euthanasia in general began to decline.

Yet in 1942, Foster Kennedy, professor of neurology at Cornell Medical College, wrote an article entitled "The Problem of Social Control of the Congenital Defective" advocating "euthanasia for those hopeless ones who should never have been born—Nature's mistakes." Kennedy believed "we have too many feebleminded people among us," and it was most humane to relieve defective individuals of their tortured and useless existence (Foster). Furthermore, he maintained that in diagnosis and prognosis there could be no mistakes in this category of children. A Gallup poll conducted twelve years earlier indicated that Kennedy's position probably was not without support within the American community. According to the poll, 45 percent of Americans in 1930 favored euthanasia of anomalous infants (Proctor, p. 180).

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the possibility of killing newborns with anencephaly in the course of acquiring transplantable organs from them was debated in professional circles. Babies with this condition are born without cerebral hemispheres, with an open skull that is empty except for the top of the spinal cord. They are wholly and permanently unconscious. Some viewed the possibility of acquiring rare transplantable organs from such infants as a way to squeeze something of value out of a tragic set of circumstances. This option was restricted by the convergence of two widely accepted norms, however. The first was that vital organs must be acquired only from dead donors. The second was that death must mean either the irreversible loss of spontaneous circulation and respiration or the irreversible loss of the functioning of the whole brain, including the brain stem. Several attempts at Loma Linda University in Southern California to acquire transplantable organs from babies born with anencephaly within the constraints of these two norms established that either the dead donor rule or the usual definition of death must first be changed. Several years later, The Council on Judicial and Ethical Opinions of the American Medical Association (AMA) proposed that in cases of anencephaly the requirement that donors of vital organs must be dead be relaxed. Shortly thereafter it withdrew this proposal in deference to intensely negative reactions. Some believed that the Council had put the wrong foot forward while attempting to move in a helpful direction. They thought that when babies are born with anencephaly it would have been less controversial to allow parents to opt for a higher brain rather than a whole-brain definition of death. If this change had been made, babies born with accurately confirmed cases of the anomaly would have been declared legally dead before transplantable organs were acquired from them. Some held that this would have honored the important ethical conviction that no one of any age or condition should be killed merely to provide transplantable organs for someone else.

The practice of infanticide was debated in the popular culture of the United States and elsewhere when Peter Singer of Australia joined the faculty of Princeton University one year before the end of the twentieth century. An accomplished utilitarian moral philosopher who was well known beyond academic circles for his advocacy of animal liberation, Singer troubled many. He contended that in general it is ethically permissible to treat human newborns in ways that parallel the ways we are morally permitted to treat other animals with approximately the same traits and abilities. He held that it is ethically acceptable to kill infants born with some serious anomalies. He also suggested that there is a sense in which parents are free to kill a handicapped infant and rear a healthier one instead. His point was that in infancy the value or interests of one newborn can often be interchanged with those of another with little or no overall loss of value, and sometimes with a gain.

These issues proved difficult to resolve in academic and popular settings in the last part of the twentieth century. This was partly because, even in many of the most widely used English dictionaries, the ability to distinguish between the basic meanings of possible and potential had all but vanished. The claim that a human infant is a potential embodiment of value, interests, or rights weighty enough to protect him or her from death at the sheer discretion of others was typically understood to mean that for a newborn this eventual state is merely possible. Common although it was, this understanding of potential failed to capture and convey the senses of inner power, capacity, and endowment in its root meaning, as was still sensed in related terms like potent, potentiate, and potentate. Wider recognition of the differences in basic meaning between potential and possible would not have settled the debates about infanticide in the last part of the twentieth century; however, it would have enabled these exchanges to proceed with greater precision and plausibility.


Authors who have explored the ethical dimensions of infanticide have frequently prefaced their discussions with surveys of its practice throughout history. The ostensible purpose of these discussions generally has been to provide a broader, less culturally bound perspective. However, Stephen Post argues that many writers selectively present "a one-sided and reductionist view of the history of infanticide to support their position … that active killing of neonates is morally acceptable" (Post, p. 14). He contends that the extent of infanticide has been misrepresented and overstated. The argument is that commentators on the history of infanticide have drawn, at least to some extent, from historical surveys plagued by interpretations that tend to view history in a positivist or linear fashion. The French historian Phillipe Ariès maintains that the idea of a separate childhood was unknown until the later Middle Ages (Ariès). Similarly Lloyd DeMause contends: "The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused" (DeMause, p. 1).

Revisionist historians, focusing on social, economic, and cultural forces, offer a significantly altered perspective on infanticide. While infanticide has been practiced continuously throughout Western history, it is not obvious that filicidal tendencies are widespread among parents. On the contrary, parents have usually resorted to infanticide only in exceptional circumstances. Although accurate estimates of the frequency of infanticide are almost nonexistent (largely due to inadequate and inconsistent record keeping), the prevalence of infanticide throughout Western history seems to have been episodic. Rates of infant killing have shown a tendency to rise and fall depending on prevailing economic and social forces. There have been striking discrepancies between the official position of the law, the frequency of the crime, the rate of prosecutions, the severity of punishment, and public sentiment concerning infanticide. Although the law has been relatively consistent in prohibiting its practice, the law has not always been an accurate gauge of societal values. Finally the availability of alternatives to infanticide— including abandonment, foundling hospitals, oblation, contraception, and abortion—appears to have had more impact on its practice than have official prohibitions.

cindy bouillon-jensen (1995)

revised by david r. larson

SEE ALSO: Abortion: Contemporary Ethical and Legal Aspects; Abuse, Interpersonal: Child Abuse; Children; Family and Family Medicine; Harm; Holocaust; Homicide; Human Rights; Infants; Insanity and the Insanity Defense; Maternal-Fetal Relationship; Mentally Disabled and Mentally Ill Persons; Moral Status; Natural Law; Sexism


Amundsen, Darrel W. 1987. "Medicine and the Birth of Defective Children: Approaches of the Ancient World." In Euthanasia and the Newborn: Conflicts Regarding Saving Lives, ed. Richard C. McMillan; H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.; and Stuart F. Spicker. Boston: D. Reidel.

Ariès, Phillipe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, tr. Robert Baldick. New York: Vintage Books.

Behlmer, George K. 1979. "Deadly Motherhood: Infanticide and Medical Opinion in Mid-Victorian England." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 34(4): 403–427.

Boswell, John. 1988. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon.

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Ferngren, Gary B. 1987a. "The Imago Dei and the Sanctity of Life: The Origins of an Idea." In Euthanasia and the Newborn: Conflicts Regarding Saving Lives, ed. Richard C. McMillan; H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.; and Stuart F. Spicker. Boston: D. Reidel.

Ferngren, Gary B. 1987b. "The Status of Defective Newborns from Late Antiquity to the Reformation." In Euthanasia and the Newborn: Conflicts Regarding Saving Lives, ed. Richard C. McMillan; H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.; and Stuart F. Spicker. Boston: D. Reidel.

Gould, W. A. 1993. "Euthanasia." Journal of the Institute of Homeopathy 27: 82.

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Hanawalt, Barbara. 1977. "Childrearing Among Lower Classes of Late Medieval England." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8(1): 1–22.

Helmholz, R. H. 1974. "Infanticide in the Province of Canterbury During the Fifteenth Century." History of Childhood Quarterly 2(3): 379–390.

Hoffer, Peter C., and Hull, N. E. H. 1981. Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England.. New York: New York University Press.

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Kellum, Barbara A. 1974. "Infanticide in England in the Later Middle Ages." History of Childhood Quarterly 1(3): 367–388.

Langer, William L. 1974. "Infanticide: A Historical Survey." History of Childhood Quarterly 1(3): 353–365.

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Piers, Maria W. 1978. Infanticide. New York: W. W. Norton. Post, Stephen. 1988. "History, Infanticide, and Imperiled Newborns." Hastings Center Report 18: 14–17.

Proctor, Richard. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schulte, Regina. 1994. Village in Court: Arson, Infanticide and Poaching in the Court Records of Upper Bavaria, 1848–1900. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Mala. 2002. Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Singer, Peter. 1993. Practical Ethics, 2nd edition. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Symonds, Deborah A. 1997. Weep Not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Trexler, Richard C. 1973. "Infanticide in Florence: New Sources and First Results." History of Childhood Quarterly 1(1): 98–116.

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views updated May 17 2018


Most societies agree that the drive to protect and nurture one's infant is a basic human trait. Yet infanticidethe killing of an infant at the hands of a parenthas 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.

Religious Beliefs

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.

See also: Children, Murder of; Christian Death Rites, History of; Homicide, Definitions and Classifications of; Homicide, Epidemiology of; Islam; Mortality, Infant


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Divale, William T., and Marvin Harris. "Population, Warfare and the Male Supremacist Complex." American Anthropologist 78 (1976):521538.

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views updated May 23 2018


Infanticide is the deliberate killing of infants under the age of one year. This restricted definition conceptualizes infanticide as a postnatal abortion procedure rather than as a type of child abuse. Infanticide and abortion are often used as family planning mechanisms, carried out to protect the health of unweaned children, the family economy, or the mother's social standing. Information on the killing of children older than one year is given in this entry only when it pertains to other issues being discussed or when the ages of the victims seem to include infants less than a year old.

In modern societies, where infants are born in hospitals, their birth certificates confer citizenship. However, throughout most of human history, babies were born at home and infanticide was a private action done by family members. For this reason, reports about infanticide are often absent or inaccurate, particularly in places having laws against the act.

A number of authors infer infanticide from family size and female infanticide from sex ratios. These indirect measures have been criticized because small family size may result from long postpartum sex taboos, high child mortality, selling unwanted children, or giving them up for adoption. Skewed sex ratios may result from neglect of daughters or underreporting females to census takers.


Marvin Harris (1977) calls infanticide the most widely used method of population control during much of human history. Infanticide, like abortion, seems to occur in virtually all contemporary tribal societies, although the frequency of infanticide varies considerably. The practice has been described in hunter-gatherer, horticulturist, and agrarian societies (Dickemann 1975), as well as among Australian Aborigines (Cowlishaw 1978) and Eskimos (Chapman 1980). It is relatively infrequent in Africa, probably because of the value of large families to agricultural and pastoral people and the high infant mortality rates (Williamson 1978).

Infanticide has been documented in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Israel, China, and Western Europe. Infanticide, particularly female infanticide, was common among the classical Greeks and Romans. Spartans exposed unfit infants of both sexes. Infanticide was so common in Greece and Rome that the average family was small and seldom had more than one daughter (Boswell 1988).

Infanticide and infant abandonment occurred throughout Europe, despite Christian prohibitions against it. Its frequency increased during the Black Death plague in the fourteenth century and became a widespread problem in the eighteenth century, an age of rapid population growth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, servants were not permitted to marry or have children, forcing many servant girls to kill or abandon their infants, who were often fathered by their masters. In nineteenth-century Europe and in other technologically advanced nations, the introduction of the condom and increased public concern for children began to decrease infanticide rates (Boswell 1988; Langer 1974).

In most twentieth-century nations, the increase of adoption, the spread of contraception, and the legalization of abortion, allowing for safe abortions under medical supervision, increasingly have made infanticide an unnecessary and outdated method of birth control.

Time of Occurrence

Infanticide is usually carried out at birth or in the first month, before the performance of the infant's birth ceremony. These ceremonies, which incorporate the infants into their kin groups and give them identity and legal status, often take place between the second and fourth weeks and may be delayed if the infant is sickly. In some societies, infants are not considered human or members of the family and community until after their birth ceremonies. The performance of infanticide before the birth ceremony indicates that it is conceptualized as a postnatal abortion (Daly and Wilson 1984; Minturn 1989a, 1989b).

In the sample studied by Leigh Minturn and Jerry Stashak (1982), infanticide was performed by mothers or midwives in 79 percent of societies and by fathers or other men in only 15 percent. Birth ceremonies, on the other hand, were performed by fathers and other men in 69 percent and by women only in 22 percent of the societies, with adults of both sexes participating in the ceremony for the remaining societies. These results suggest that unwanted newborns are killed by women before they are presented to the lawgiving men for the birth ceremonies.


Infanticide is sometimes done quickly by strangling, crushing the skull, smothering, or poisoning. Other common methods of infanticide include exposure, abandonment, and overlaying.

Exposure. Exposure relieves parents and midwives of the responsibility of actually killing infants. The exposed infant is placed somewhere away from the community where the elements or animals will kill it. The prevalence of legends about the survival and subsequent good fortune of exposed infants (Moses, Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Tom Jones) suggests that this method reduced the guilt of child killing. A singular modern exception to distant exposure occurs in modern hospitals, where legal constraints prohibit any method of killing a seriously handicapped infant except via the withholding of food and water, which amounts to exposing the infant in the presence of his or her caregivers (Lund 1985).

Urban exposure. Urban exposure of infants was common throughout Europe until the nineteenth century. In medieval Europe, infants were left in the streets, on trash heaps, and at church steps. European urban exposure became most frequent during the eighteenth century, when numerous poor women abandoned infants in streets or foundling homes and Parisian garbage collectors picked up abandoned infants on their rounds. However, urban exposure was not confined to Europe. During the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries to China found that babies were thrown into the streets and collected with the trash (Boswell 1988; Langer 1974).

Foundling homes. Public outrage over urban exposure of infants led to the establishment of foundling homes in Europe. The mortality rates of infants in these homes was as high as 90 percent. Wet nurses employed in foundling homes neglected infants and sometimes killed them so frequently that they were called "killer nurses" or "angel makers." In effect, consigning infants to these homes amounted to institutionalized urban exposure. Foundling homes allowed parents to abandon unwanted infants without fear of prosecution. As this practice became openly acceptable in the eighteenth century, attitudes toward outright infanticide became more lenient (Boswell 1988; Breiner 1990; Langer 1974). Foundling homes proved to be so ineffectual that, in the late nineteenth century, France and Britain passed laws requiring them to be licensed. Government support for unwed mothers began to replace foundling homes and orphanages in a number of countries (Langer 1974).

Overlaying. Infant death by overlaying—the accidental smothering of a baby by rolling over on it in bed—was common in Europe from the early Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. It is not always clear from the records whether overlaying occurred before or after birth ceremonies, but most overlay victims seem to have been less than one year old. Overlaying was recognized in law and religion. Sleeping with infants was discouraged and sometimes illegal (Kellum 1974). It has been suggested that some overlaying deaths in nineteenth-century England were due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is related to nutritional tetany, and that the upper classes blamed such deaths on overlaying to disassociate themselves from the poor (Hansen 1979). Ethnographies report numerous societies where mothers or both parents routinely sleep with infants, often with older children in the bed, but do not report overlaying. It seems that this belief was, in large part, a legal fiction that allowed infanticide deaths to be declared accidental.

Vctims of Infanticide

Two studies of folk and tribal societies drawn from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University report similar results to each other (Daly and Wilson 1984; Minturn and Stashak 1982). The most frequently killed infants are illegitimate (57%, 53%); weak or deformed (60%, 53%); twins and triplets (40%, 40%); or excess because of family size or circumstances of birth spacing (31%, 23%). Minturn and Stashak (1982) also found infants are killed because they are the results of abnormal births (20%); unwanted, usually because the mothers are too old or too young to raise children (27%); or females (17%).

Comparison of these results with those of a study done by George Devereux (1976) of abortion in tribal societies indicates that the victims of abortion and infanticide are the same types of infants, not surprising since the motive in both is the elimination of unwanted infants.

Infrequently, ethnographers report infanticide because of incest, kinship considerations, quarrels between parents, sacrifice, or war (Daly and Wilson 1984; Williamson 1978).

Female Infanticide

Female infanticide is the only type of infanticide still widely practiced. Female infanticide at birth and indirect female infanticide through neglect are still widespread in Third World countries.

Ethnographic reports of female infanticide, however, are relatively rare. Minturn and Stashak (1982) report it in 17 percent of their societies, Martin King Whyte (1978) in only 6 percent. Female infanticide has also been estimated from sex ratios, with a note that some societies reporting the absence of this custom have suspiciously skewed sex ratios favoring boys (Divale and Harris 1976). When reporting twin infanticides, ethnographers often note that if only one twin of a dual-sex pair is kept, it is usually the boy (Granzberg 1973).

In India and China, this custom of female infanticide dates back centuries. Female infanticide in India is most common in the northwestern states (Miller 1981; Minturn 1993), but it has also been reported for groups in the south. The poverty of China's peasants and its frequent famines are two reasons for female infanticide. In both India and China, female infanticide is increasingly being replaced by female feticide after amniocentesis to determine fetal sex. The one-child policy of Communist China and the two-child policy of India have increased the prevalence of sons ( Jefferey, Jefferey, and Lyon 1984).


Sarah B. Hrdy and Glenn Hausfater (1984) cite five functional categories of reasons for infanticide in animals in general: (1) exploitation of the infant as a resource, usually cannibalism; (2) competition for resources; (3) sexual selection; (4) parental increase of their own lifetime reproductive success by eliminating particular offspring; and (5) social pathology. Human infanticide includes examples of all of these functions (Daly and Wilson 1984; Dickemann 1984; Hrdy and Hausfater 1984; Scrimshaw 1984).

Resource competition is a popular theory of human infanticide. The threat of famine has been cited as the explanation for infanticide among Eskimos, Australian Aborigines, and Yanomamö. In Imperial China, Japan, and Europe, infanticide was used to control population and avoid starvation and social disruption. This was especially true for female infanticide, since eliminating females is a much more efficient form of population control than eliminating males.

Other theories of reasons for female infanticide include hypergymous marriage and large dowries (Dickemann 1979); differential values of children for their potential contributions to the parental kin groups (Hughes 1981); and high mortality rate of men in hunting (Riches 1974). The theory that female infanticide is a form of population control in warrior societies (Divale and Harris 1976) has been challenged by several authors who note many flaws in the original study (Fjellman 1979; Hirschfeld, Howe, and Levin 1978; Kang, Horan, and Reis 1979).

Acceptability and Legality

It has been suggested that infanticide and abortion may be underreported in tribal societies because of the presence of missionaries and colonial governments who deem these practices to be illegal (Divale and Harris 1976). Reports of infanticide prosecution by colonial governments are virtually absent in HRAF records. When babies are born at home, infanticide laws are seldom enforceable.

Ethnographic reports of abortion and infanticide are considerably more frequent than reports of punishments for either action, suggesting that tribal law was frequently permissive about both practices. A study of seventy-eight societies found no information on punishment of abortion for sixty-seven of them, and information on punishment of infanticide was so rare that it could not be coded. The absence of punishment may be viewed as recognition of parental rights to dispose of unwanted infants. Some tribal societies explicitly recognize this right until the cord is cut, until after the birth ceremony, or in a few societies, until the infant is weaned (Minturn 1989a).

Although infanticide was a capital offense in many countries for centuries, there is evidence that courts frequently took measures to avoid or mitigate punishment and that a variety of beliefs supported acquittals. In many courts, infanticidal mothers might successfully plead insanity. Eighteenth-century courts greatly extended the scope of the insanity plea by citing, as reason for dismissal of infanticide cases, the belief that pregnancy itself may make women deranged (Boswell 1988). As infanticide became more frequent, courts became more lenient, particularly when defendants were poor, unwed mothers.

Penalties also varied according to the method of killing. In the early Middle Ages, infanticide by exposure, a widespread practice of poor parents, was not a criminal offense. Overlaying was punished by one year on bread and water and two more years without wine or meat. This three-year penance, which became the standard punishment for overlaying, was shorter than the penalty for the accidental killing of adults (Kellum 1974).


There are four ways to avoid conceiving or to eliminate unwanted children: abstinence, contraception, abortion, and infanticide. Although abstinence was and is practiced in some societies by customs of late marriage, postpartum sex taboos, and customary periods of celibacy, it has never prevented all unwanted pregnancies. When these occurred in the past, infanticide was the safest method for disposing of the unwanted children. As medical advancements have been made, however, contraception and abortion have become more widely used and have replaced abstinence and infanticide as forms of birth control.

See also:Abortion; Birth Control: Contraceptive Methods; Birth Control: Sociocultural and Historical Aspects; Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Death and Dying; Euthanasia; Family Planning


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divale, w. t. (1972). "systemic population control in themiddle and upper paleolithic." world archeology and anthropology iv:65–68.

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hrdy, s. b., and hausfater, g. (1984). comparative andevolutionary perspectives on infanticide: introduction and overview. new york: aldine.

hughes, a. l. (1981). "female infanticide." ethnology andsociobiology 2:109–111.

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kang, g.; horan, s.; and reis, j. (1979). "comments ondivale and harris's 'population, warfare, and the male supremacist complex.'" behavior science research 14:201–211.

kellum, b. (1974). "infanticide in england and in the latermiddle ages." history of infanticide quarterly 1:367–388.

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miller, b. d. (1981). the endangered sex. ithaca, ny: cornell university press.

minturn, l. (1989a). "the birth ceremony as a rite of passage into infant personhood." in abortion rights and fetal personhood, ed. e. doerr and j. w. prescott. long beach, ca: centerline press.

minturn, l. (1989b). "this child is ours: a cross-culturalstudy of definitions of personhood." in heterogeneity in cross-cultural psychology, ed. d. m. keats, d. munroe, and l. mann. rockland, ma: swets and zeitlinger.

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riches, d. (1974). "the netsilik eskimo: a special case of active female infanticide." ethnology 13:351–361.

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views updated Jun 11 2018


Although the term is sometimes used to denote the willful killing of children of any age, infanticide usually refers to the newborn; infanticide occurs mostly soon after birth. There are broadly speaking two kinds of infanticide. The first is practiced as a method of family formation; the second occurs mostly outside of marriage, to avoid the shame of illegitimate births.

Infanticide as Tool of Family Formation

In Greek and Roman antiquity, the decision to kill a child was a prerogative of the family head. Evidence about its practice is largely anecdotal, often in the form of narratives about famous men who were abandoned at birth and saved from death, such as Oedipus or Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. Typical grounds for killing a child, such as physical impairment or the unwanted sex of the child, could only be recognized after delivery. Infanticide by exposure was practiced in Sparta for eugenic reasons, and was approved for similar reasons by Aristotle. It is speculated that female infanticide was practiced widely in antiquity, although statistical evidence in the form of imbalance of the sex ratio is ambiguous. Historian John Boswell, in his study published in 1988, hypothesized that child abandonment in antiquity was a benign form of population control, allowing people who did not welcome the arrival of a child to entrust it to "the kindness of strangers" desirous of adopting it. The inference is questionable, since most children could not survive without access to human milk, and the availability of a nurse at the time a child was found could not be taken for granted, even though mythical stories often involve the intervention of animals such as goats or she-wolves.

Christian and Jewish influences were largely responsible for the condemnation of deliberately caused infant death in the West, but infanticide was widely practiced in ancient Asian societies, and its importance is attested by historical studies on Tokugawa Japan and imperial China, and by testimonies on nineteenth-century India. Female infanticide dominated, particularly among the poor, and was justified by the fact that daughters would contribute little to their family of origin, while sons were responsible for the care of parents in old age and for performing familial rites. Neglect, harsh treatment, and preferential male feeding led to the higher mortality of girl babies, and might be considered a form of infanticide.

Infanticide to Conceal a Birth

The second type of infanticide, practiced by unmarried mothers right after delivery in order to avoid shame, prevailed in Western countries and is still encountered in the early twenty-first century. In the past, concealing a pregnancy and killing or abandoning the infant was the most readily available method of "birth control" for unmarried women. However, its effect on population numbers must have been small. In most countries of Europe, legal codes dating back to the Middle Ages prescribed punishment by death for women convicted of infanticide, but in practice the penalty was typically less severe. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the authorities of several countries passed legislation designed to regulate the unruly poor and impose strict norms of morality. In England, for example, a serious attempt was made to control extramarital relations and deter bastardy as a way of avoiding a potential burden on local finances. In Germany, unmarried mothers were mostly seduced maidservants, who were banished from the community.

Concealing the pregnancy and the birth was a desperate reaction. Royal edicts in France and England created a presumption of infanticide, punishable by death, when an unreported extra-marital pregnancy resulted in miscarriage or death of the infant. By the eighteenth century the severity of the penalty seemed to deter juries from convicting a woman whose child had died. In most countries, there was a relaxation of attitudes, and systems aiming at the protection of infants rather than at the punishment of mothers were set in place.

Foundling Hospitals

The first foundling hospitals were created in Italy as early as the thirteenth century. Some were eventually created in France too, and "tours" (revolving doors where a child could be abandoned without any questions asked) were installed in churches and hospitals. It is sometimes assumed that the extraordinarily high mortality rate of children in foundling hospitals amounted to the institutionalization of infanticide, but it is a more plausible explanation that the institutions failed in their mission because of the technical difficulty of keeping children alive without reliable access to a supply of maternal breast milk. Abandonments grew in numbers together with the institutions designed to cope with the practice. Paris in the late eighteenth century, with a population of half a million, admitted more than 7,000 foundlings a year, but at least a third of those came from out of town. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many large Western cities had institutions for foundlings recording sizable populations (there were between three and four thousand foundlings per year in New York in the 1870s) and a mortality well over 50 percent of admissions was common.

The Italian system in the early nineteenth century was characterized by a multiplicity of "tours" even in rural churches, and foundling homes with very high mortality. Unmarried mothers would nurse children other than their own before they were reintegrated in their communities, where the birth would have been kept secret. Men rarely assumed responsibility for their illegitimate offspring. In English-speaking countries, however, the responsibility for the care of illegitimate children was to the extent possible shifted to the mother and father of the child.

Demographic Effects

The demographic impact of infanticide was probably small. Some writers have suggested that it constituted an important check on population growth, but this is based on assumptions rather than recorded facts, in an area that is notoriously difficult to investigate and document. Actual condemnations for infanticide remained infrequent in all periods, and were mainly restricted to extra-marital relations. The controversy concerning the quantitative importance of infanticide hinges on the frequency of the practice among married couples. There it took the form of neglect, making it difficult to distinguish from high mortality from poverty and natural causes. The church and civil authorities expressed concern about overlaying (the accidental smothering of infants sleeping with their parents) and other accidental deaths, but it may well be that they were implicitly accusing poor parents of responsibility for deaths that in the twenty-first century would be blamed on unidentified causes, such as the sudden infant death syndrome. There is little evidence of differential female mortality in this context.

See also: Birth Control, History of; Induced Abortion: History; Sex Selection.


Boswell, John. 1988. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fuchs, Rachel G. 1984. Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hoffer, Peter C. and N.E.H. Hull. 1981. Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England 1558–1803. New York: New York University Press.

Kertzer, David I. 1993. Sacrificed for Honor. Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control.. Boston: Beacon Press.

Rublack, Ulinka. 1999. The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Etiennevan de Walle


views updated May 21 2018


Infanticide entails actions that result in the death of an infant of the same species. Several species commit infanticide, including birds (e.g., skuas and egrets) and mammals (e.g., gerbils, wild stallions, Serengeti lions, and primates such as langurs, gorillas, and humans). Among species other than humans, infanticide is usually carried out by an invading male to increase his reproductive chances by eliminating the young of a rival male so as to force the female to mate with him. Among humans, infanticide may range from deliberate to not fully conscious actions that result in the death of a child typically less than twelve months of age. The age may vary, however, depending on cultural notions of when the life of a child begins. The term neonaticide is frequently used when an infant is killed on the day of its birth, while the term filicide is used for the killing of a child (particularly below the age of six years) by one or both parents.

Infanticide has existed throughout human history in different parts of the world, although its form, the motivating factors, and the circumstances surrounding it have varied. The Greeks, Romans, British, French, Inuit (Canada and North America), Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Tikopia of Polynesia, !Kung of the Kalahari, Yanomama of Venezuela and Brazil, and Bariba of Benin have all engaged in it in constant patterns. Infanticide can be traced to the ancient world in the Mediterranean basin, among other locations. It persisted in western Europe during the Middle Ages; although in some cases infanticide was considered a crime, prosecutions were extremely rare and penalties were minor. In parts of Asia (particularly India and China) the practice of female infanticide has continued into the twenty-first century because of a combination of cultural, social, economic, and political factors. Female infanticide usually happens in patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal cultures in which there is a strong preference for males and devaluation of females. In India and China female infanticide has contributed to a significant imbalance in the ratio of males to females.

Among other reasons, infanticide has been used as: a method of family size control; a mechanism for regulating the population; a means to manipulate the sex ratio for personal, economic, cultural, and social ends; a response to the shame and fear of ostracism when pregnancy and birth have resulted from violation of norms; and a reaction to a cost-benefit analysis of the value for male and female offspring (Caldwell and Caldwell 2005, Dickeman 1975, Spinelli 2005). Infanticide sometimes also results from a postpartum reaction on the part of the mother. Based on a review of ethnographic material, Susan C. M. Scrimshaw (1984) provides four major sources of infanticide: (1) infant deformity; (2) illegitimacy; (3) an infant proximate at birth to a sibling; and (4) an infant of the undesired sex in a society that values males and females differently (especially, in relation to the value of their labor). Methods of infanticide vary from abandoning the infant, death by exposure, withholding of food, suffocation, drowning, and discarding infants in garbage dumps, sewers, or remote areas.

Since the late 1960s, human rights and women's rights organizations worldwide have engaged in an ongoing series of protests and actions to end systematic infanticide, especially female infanticide. These organizations have pressured governments to address the sex ratio imbalance and to take a proactive role in improving the overall status of girls and women as a key to eliminating female infanticide.


Caldwell, John C., and Bruce K. Caldwell. 2005. "Family Size Control by Infanticide in the Great Agrarian Societies of Asia." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 36(2): 205-226.

Dickeman, Mildred. 1975. "Demographic Consequences of Infanticide in Man." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 6: 107-137.

Meyer, Jon'a F. 2005. "Unintended Consequences for the Youngest Victims: The Role of Law in Encouraging Neonaticide from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries." Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law, and Society 18(3): 237-254.

Scrimshaw, Susan C. M. 1984. "Infanticide in Human Populations: Societal and Individual Concerns." In Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, ed. Glenn Hausfater and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. New York: Aldine Publishing.

Spinelli, M. G. 2005. "Infanticide: Contrasting Views." Archives of Women's Mental Health 8: 15-24.

Sudha, S., and S. Irudaya Rajan. 1999. "Female Demographic Disadvantage in India, 1981–1991: Sex-Selective Abortions and Female Infanticide." Development and Change 30(3): 585-618.

Tooley, Michael. 1983. Abortion and Infanticide. New York: Oxford University Press.

Yi, Zeng; Tu Ping; Gu Baochang; et al. 1993. "Causes and Implications of the Recent Increase in the Reported Sex Ratio at Birth in China." Population and Development Review 19(2): 283-302.

                                       Margaret Abraham


views updated May 14 2018


Enslaved mothers often employed extraordinary measures to protect their children from enduring a life of slavery. Most scholars have contended that female slaves frequently endured physical brutality and sexual exploitation. These variables somewhat explain enslaved women's severe reactions to the slavery institution. Resistance was commonplace among slave women. Unfortunately, for some, the callousness of slavery fostered aberrant and shocking behavior.

Infanticide was a practice that some enslaved women engaged in, frequently with the purpose of protecting their children from a life of perpetual bondage, or to hide a pregnancy from their owners. On occasion, however, the exercise was merely a woman's unexplained resolution to destroy her child's life. Some enslaved women induced miscarriages, whereas others used violence to put an existing child to death. According to historian Deborah Gray White, "Some southern whites were certain that slave women knew how to avoid pregnancy as well as how to deliberately abort a pregnancy" (1985, p. 84). Herbs, vigorous exercise, and "external and internal manipulations" may have all been used to induce miscarriage. Whereas many miscarriages were deliberate, some were incidental and brought about by the strenuous labor required of bondsmen and women.

The purposeful killing of slave children by their mothers has been most frequently portrayed as a heroic attempt to rescue their offspring from the horrors of slavery. White relays the example of a woman who killed her child to counteract her mistress abusing the infant, while another woman killed her newborn to prevent it from being sold. An observer recollected the latter incident and stated:

When her fourth baby was born and was about two months old, she just studied all the time about how she would have to give it up, and one day she said, "I just decided I'm not going to let Old Master sell this baby; he just ain't going to do it." She got up and give it something out of a bottle, and pretty soon it was dead. (1985, p. 88)

Slavery studies have frequently highlighted the notion that the corrosiveness of the slavery institution often drew out the most desperate and unusual facets of human behavior. Although enslaved blacks were seen as subhuman by some, the act of killing a child was universally perceived as morally wrong. Infanticide frequently stimulated public criticism, as evidenced in the 1856 Margaret Garner (d. 1858) case. According to scholar Steven Weisenburger, "Margaret Garner's child-murder electrified the United States…. In its epoch the Garner case became the most significant and controversial of all the antebellum fugitive stories" (1998, pp. 5-8). In 1856 Garner fled from a Kentucky plantation with her four children, husband, and his parents, Simon and Mary. She successfully escaped to Cincinnati, but was tracked down by her owner. Frightened, Garner grasped a butcher knife and practically beheaded her youngest daughter, Mary. The incident made headlines in northern newspapers. A reporter for the Daily Cleveland Herald recorded the following on January 30, 1856: "… the mother of the four children who were captured made a desperate effort to take their lives, rather than that they should be returned to servitude."

While one cannot deny the deliberate and violent nature of some infanticide cases, scholars have recently reexamined the phenomenon and have concluded that an overwhelming number of these occurrences were indeed accidental. Historian Michael Johnson concluded that most smothering cases were unintentional. Although most white southerners assumed that enslaved mothers carelessly smothered their children, recent evidence has revealed that these deaths were largely accidental. Johnson determined that slave infants were rarely the victims of smothering, but that most suffocation deaths were attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) (1981, p. 496). Scholar Todd Savitt (1978) made a similar conclusion in his earlier study, and suggested that SIDS was a prevalent medical condition and the principal cause of slave infant deaths in the South.


"Arrest of Fugitive Slaves: A Slave Mother Murders Her Child Rather than See It Return to Slavery," The Daily Cleveland Herald (Cleveland, OH), January 30, 1856.

Johnson, Michael P. "Smothered Slave Infants: Were Slave Mothers at Fault?" The Journal of Southern History 47, no. 4 (November 1981): 493-520.

Savitt, Todd. Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia. Urbana: University Press of Illinois, 1978.

Weisenburger, Steven. Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child Murder from the Old South. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.

                                   Talitha L. LeFlouria


views updated May 14 2018

in·fan·ti·cide / inˈfantiˌsīd/ • n. 1. the crime of a mother killing her child within a year of birth. ∎  the practice in some societies of killing unwanted children soon after birth.2. a person who kills an infant, esp. their own child.DERIVATIVES: in·fan·ti·cid·al / -ˌfantiˈsīdl/ adj.


views updated May 29 2018

370. Infanticide

  1. Astyanax Hectors infant son, thrown from the walls of Troy by the Greeks. [Gk. Myth.: Hamilton, 289]
  2. Cronos warned that a son would dethrone him, swallowed all his children at birth. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 237]
  3. Sorrel, Hetty leaves her illegitimate infant to die. [Br. Lit.: Eliot Adam Bede ]

Infertility (See BARRENNESS .)



views updated May 17 2018

infanticide (in-fant-i-syd) n. (in Britain) under the terms of the Infanticide Act 1938, the felony of child destruction by the natural mother within 12 months of birth when the balance of her mind is disturbed because she has not fully recovered from childbirth and/or lactation.


views updated May 21 2018

infanticide the killing of a newborn child, which in some societies (as in ancient Greece, by exposure) has in certain circumstances been sanctioned; in law, the crime of a mother killing her child within a year of birth.