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A Brief History of Infanticide

General Historical Evidence

In 1978, Laila Williamson, an anthropologist of the American Museum of Natural History, summarized the data she had collected on the prevalence of infanticide among tribal and civilized societies from a variety of sources in the scientific and historical literature. Her conclusion was startlingly blunt:

Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.

There is ample historical evidence to document the incredible propensity of parents to murder their children under an assortment of stressful situations. In nineteenth century England, for example, infanticide was so rampant throughout the country that a debate over how to correct the problem was carried out in both the lay and medical press. An editorial in the respected medical journal Lancet noted that "to the shame of civilization it must be avowed that not a State has yet advanced to the degree of progress under which child-murder may be said to be a very uncommon crime.

Infanticide has pervaded almost every society of mankind from the Golden Age of Greece to the splendor of the Persian Empire. While there are many diverse reasons for this wanton destruction, two of the most statistically important are poverty and population control. Since prehistoric times, the supply of food has been a constant check on human population growth. One way to control the lethal effects of starvation was to restrict the number of children allowed to survive to adulthood. Darwin believed that infanticide, "especially of female infants," was the most important restraint on the proliferation of early man.

While female infanticide has at times been necessary for survival of the community-at-large, there have also been instances where it has been related to the general societal prejudice against females which characterizes most male-dominated cultures.

Evidence in Arabia

Sexism was particularly prominent in Arabia before the time of Mohammed (570?-632 AD). The Persian world was a very paternalistic society, and females were generally seen as an undesirable burden to a family struggling to survive. A common proverb held that it was "a generous deed to bury a female child." Nevertheless, the Koran, which collected the writings of Mohammed, introduced reforms that included the prohibition of female infanticide. Mohammed outlined the wrongfulness of infanticide in various sections of his holy scripture.

He asked, with censure ' for example, how would a father account for his actions, "When the female child that had been buried alive shall be asked for what crime she was put to death?"

Evidence in Judaism and Christianity

While we also find discrimination in the treatment of women within the Western religions of Judaism and Christianity, there were safeguards in both practices to prevent social acceptance of infanticide by its adherents. The Jews were clearly against the taking of human life, and generally forbade the killing of any newborn infant. Maimonides (1135 - 1204 AD), the renowned Jewish philosopher and physician, pointed out that a single man was first created in Genesis, "to teach us that if any man destroys a single life in the world, scriptures imputes it to him as though he has destroyed the whole world." Each life, each spark of being, was a gift of God and only the Holy Father could extinguish its flame. Infanticide was therefore rare and never socially accepted by the Jews.

That some early Christian parents did indeed expose unwanted female infants to the elements was evident in the writings of the Church Fathers who were concerned over future acts of incest. Saint Justin Martyr (114-166 AD) cautioned that it was wicked to expose children for, "almost all those who are exposed are raised to prostitution." He then added a warning against consorting with prostitutes because it was thereby possible that one would be guilty of having intercourse with his own child. Clement of Alexandria (150-211 AD) similarly advised of this danger. For the most part, however, as with the Jews, this criminal act was not accepted by Christian Society, and infanticide remained a clearly impious and illegal act.

Evidence in India and China

Despite the clear theistic prohibitions against child-murder by the three major Western religions, female infanticide has been for centuries a prominent and socially acceptable event in two related areas of the world: India and China. Even today, the extent of the problem is measured in frightening proportions: "at least 60 million females in Asia are missing and feared dead, victims of nothing more than their sex. Worldwide, research suggests, the number of missing females may top 100 million. "

The data is truly astounding, Estimates indicate that 30.5 million females are "missing" from China, 22.8 million in India, 3.1 million in Pakistan, 1.6 million in Bangladesh, 1.7 million in West Asia, 600,000 in Egypt, and 200,000 in Nepal.

It is clear that the onerous costs involved with the raising of a girl, end eventually providing her an appropriate marriage dowry, was the single most important factor in allowing social acceptance of the murder at birth in India. In China, economics also played a significant role since it is a poor country with one of the lowest rates of agricultural output per acre of arable land in the world. With an extremely high infant and child mortality rate, because of sparse food supply and medical care, a married couple needed to raise three sons in order to ensure the survival of one into adulthood. Females were only consumers and a serious financial burden to a poor family. They were therefore often killed at birth

Infanticide in Modem Times

Colonial America

The colonists brought infanticide to America from England while at the same time finding that the Indians practiced it as well. As was the case in Germany extreme discipline characterized family life in puritanical colonial America and parents were given extensive liberty to punish their children, even to the point of death. In 1646 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay had enacted a law where "a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient years and understanding, " would be brought before the Magistrates in court and "such a son shall be put to death." "Stubborn child laws" were also enacted in Connecticut in 1650, Rhode Island in 1668, and New Hampshire in 1679.

How ingrained was the attitude of rigid parental control over the discipline of children can be evidenced by a comparison to concern over animal welfare. Henry Bergh founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in 1866.4 After first completing his campaign to improve the plight of cats and dogs, Burgh brought by special warrant to the Supreme Court of New York, the case of Mary Ellen who claimed that the child's custodians had beaten her cruelly and that she should be brought under the protection of the court.

The resulting court action and publicity led to the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which was a parallel protection agency to his first endeavor. Such watchgroups for the welfare of children were much needed in the United States during this era. In antebellum Virginia, during the 1850's, the mortality of children under the age of one year of age was 16-20%. It is believed that many of these were actually due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Modern America

"In 1966, the United States had 10,920 murders, and one out of every twenty-two was a child killed by a parent."

Despite our predilection for considering modern civilization "advanced," the crime of infanticide has continued to pervade most contemporary cultures. The major difference between the nature of infanticide in the twentieth century, when compared to the rest of recorded history, however, is due to the impact of one modern medical advancement: the widespread availability of safe, and legal, means of abortion. The ability to easily terminate a pregnancy, and thereby eliminate an unwanted child before it is born, has had a profound effect on the prevalence of infanticide. The human species has killed almost 10% - 15% of all children born. The majority of these murders have been associated with reasons of necessity at least in the minds of the infanticide parent - or with untoward reactions against an unwanted birth. With little ability to abort an unwanted pregnancy safely, troubled parents have had little choice but to wait until full-term delivery before disposing of the conception.

Of approximately 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States in 1988, 3.6 million were unintended and therefore subject to dangerous consequences. 1.6 million of those unwanted pregnancies resulted in abortion. In Britain, more than 160,000 legal abortions, or terminations of pregnancy, were carried out each year during this same period of time. The Family Planning Association in Russia says that there are more than 3 million abortions performed each year, more than double the number of births. In France, there are almost one million abortions each year, equal to the number of births. This means that over five million pregnancies were aborted in the Western world alone each year, and if the births of those children would not have been prevented, it is very likely that many of those infants would have been victims of infanticidal rage.

Morally right or wrong - a case of murder or manifestation of a woman's right to choose - the fact remains that the frequent use of abortion has eased the necessity for killing an infant after its birth.

Statistical Analysis - United States

Statistically, the United States ranks high on the list of countries whose inhabitants kill their children. For infants under the age of one year, the American homicide rate is 11th in the world, while for ages one through four it is 1st and for ages five through fourteen it is fourth. From 1968 to 1975, infanticide of all ages accounted for almost 3.2% of all reported homicides in the United States.

The 1980's followed similar trends. Whereby overall homicide rates were decreasing in the United States, the rate at which parents were killing their children was increasing, In 1983, over six hundred children were reported killed by their parents, and from 1982-1987, approximately 1.1% of all homicides were children under the age of one year of age. When the homicide of a child was committed by a parent, it was the younger age child who was in the greater danger of being killed, while if the killer was a non-parent, then the victim was generally older.

The characterization of the type of parent that is likely to kill their child has changed little over the years. As far back as the middle ages, the children of the poor "Were by far the most common victims of the parental negligence and despair." Today, infanticide is still most commonly seen in areas of severe poverty.

And just as infanticide was described as a crime that was committed by the mother in medieval times, such a likelihood remains true today. Although men are more likely to murder in general, statistical review of prosecutions show that infanticide is usually committed by the mother. When mothers killed their children, however, the victim was usually a newborn baby or younger infant. Some research shows that for murders of children over the age of one year in the United States, white fathers were the perpetrators 10% more often than white mothers, and black fathers 50% more than black mothers.

Other risk factors can include young maternal age, low level of education and employment, and signs of psychopathology, such as alcoholism, drug abuse or other criminal behavior. The most common method of killing children over the ages has been head trauma, strangulation and drowning. Most of the murders today are committed with the use of the mother's hands, either by strangulation or physical punishment.

Copyright 1998, Dr. Larry S. Milner.  All rights reserved.

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