In sociology and biology, infanticide is the practice of intentionally causing the death of an infant (pre-pubescent child) of a given species, by members of the same species - sometimes by the mother or at her behest. In the UK, this is sometimes ascribed to the Infanticide Act 1939, which relates infantide to the killng of an infant in the first year of its life to by its mother. More usually, and in in criminology, it includes various forms of non-maternal child murder - destruction of unwanted children under the age of puberty - usually under 14 years. See for instance Moors Murders and Gilles de Rais.
An infanticide is a person who commits the act of infanticide.
Recently, much publicity has been given to the practice of child murder in primitive societies such as the tribes in the Amazon, where favored methods include abandonment, burial alive, smothering, strangulation and suffocation with leaves. (See for instance hakani.org).
It is important to note that it is not only newborn babies which are the victims of infanticide. Frequently, it is children of 3, 4, 11 and up to 13 years old which are killed for many different reasons - such as if the child is orphaned, if it is considered in some way inferior, or it is simply unwanted. The definition says that infanticide is a form of child murder associated with the destruction of unwanted children up to the age of puberty only.
In some primitive societies, certain forms of infanticide are considered permissible and necessary, although in modern societies the practice is considered immoral and criminal.
In some South American countries, street children and the children of other unwanted groups are targeted by government 'death squads'. In these circumstances, the children are treated as vermin rather, than fellow human beings; and infanticide is seen as a means of cleansing cities; although such activities are strenuously denied by governments internationally.
Infanticide in history
Infanticide was common in most well written ancient cultures, including those of ancient Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan. The practice of infanticide has taken many forms. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as that allegedly practiced in ancient Carthage, is one form; however, many societies only practiced simple infanticide and regarded child sacrifice as morally repugnant. The practice has become less common in the western world, but continues today in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India . Female infants, then and now, are particularly vulnerable.
Jewish practice was not to perform infanticide; Josephus wrote, "The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus." This practice was so eccentric that when Tacitus, in Book 5 of his Histories wrote of how "all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness," he included among them: "It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant."
One frequent method of infanticide in antiquity was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to death by exposure -- or whatever other fate befell it, commonly acknowledged to be slavery and prostitution. Another method commonly used with female children was to severely malnourish them, resulting in a vastly increased risk of death by accident or disease. In some cultures, this is thought to have been an open and accepted practice, while in others it may have been practiced privately, with the passive acceptance of society.
Classic Roman civilization can serve as an example of both aspects. In some periods of Roman history it was traditional practice for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to death by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged the pater familias to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. Although infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374|AD 374, offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted. A practice described in Roman texts was to smear the breast with opium residue so that a nursing baby would die with no outward cause.
From its earliest days, Christianity rejected the notion of infanticide. The Didache prescribed "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born." So widely accepted was this teaching that Justin Martyr, in his Apology, defended the practice of not exposing children:
- "But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution."
He continues with the observation:
- "And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers"
which reflects on the difficulty of determining how many exposed children actually died.
This spread with Christianity; in Njal's Saga, the account of how Christianity came to Iceland concludes with the simultaneous proscription of pagan worship and exposure of infants (as well as eating horsemeat).
Explanations for the practice
Many historians believe the reason to be primarily economic, with more children born into families than the family is prepared to support. However, this does not explain why infanticide would occur equally among rich and poor, nor why it would be as frequent during decadent periods of the Roman Empire as during earlier, more affluent, periods.
A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 BC, describes the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
- "Know that I am still in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it." – Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule.
Some anthropologists have suggested other causes for infanticide in non-state and non-industrialized societies. Janet Siskind has argued that female infanticide may be a form of population control in Amazonian societies. Population control is achieved not only by limiting the number of potential mothers; increased fighting among men for access to relatively scarce wives would also lead to a decline in population. Although additional research by Marvin Harris and William Divale supports this argument, it has been criticized as an example of environmental determinism. In the Solomon Islands, some people reportedly kill their first-born child as a matter of custom -- and then adopt a child from another island, a practice that suggests that the causes of infanticide are more complex. Other anthropologists have suggested a variety of largely culture-specific reasons for infanticide. In cultures where different value is placed on male and female children, sex-selective infanticide may be practiced simply to increase the proportion of children of the preferred sex, usually male. In cultures where childbearing is strongly tied to social structures, infants born outside of those structures (illegitimate children, children of incest, children of cross-caste relationships, and so forth) may be killed by family members to conceal or atone for the violation of taboo.
In times of famine or cases of extreme poverty, parents may have to choose which of their children will live and which will starve.
A minority of academics subscribe to an alternate school of thought blaming the practice, both modern and historical, on psychological inability to raise children (see early infanticidal childrearing).
Contemporary data suggests that modern infanticide is usually brought about by a combination of postpartum depression and a psychological unreadiness to raise children. It could also be exacerbated by schizophrenia. It is also attributed, in some cases, to the desire of unwed, underage parents to conceal their sexual relations and/or avoid the responsibility of childrearing.
In addition to debates over the morality of infanticide itself, there is some debate over the effects of infanticide on surviving children, and the effects of childrearing in societies that also sanction infanticide. Some argue that the practice of infanticide in any widespread form causes enormous psychological damage in children.
In the absence of sex-selective abortion, sex-selective infanticide can be deduced from very skewed birth statistics. The biologically normal birth ratio for homo sapiens is approximately 105 males per 100 females, and the life expectancy of females is slightly greater than males on average. When a society has an infant male to female ratio which is significantly higher than the biological norm, sex selection can usually be inferred. (However, new research has led to alternate explanations to this theory.)
There have been some accusations that infanticide occurs in China due to the one-child policy although most demographers do not believe that the practice is widespread. In the 1990s, a certain stretch of the Yangtze River was known to be a common site of infanticide by drowning, until government projects made access to it more difficult. Others assert that China has twenty-five million fewer girl children than expected, but sex selective abortion can partially be to blame. The illegal use of ultrasound is widespread in China, and itinerant sonographers with plain vans in parking lots offer inexpensive sonographs to determine the sex of a fetus.
Joseph Fletcher, founder of situational ethics and a euthanasia proponent, proposed that infanticide be permitted in cases of severe birth defects.
Infanticide in other species
Other species, besides homo sapiens, commit infanticide. One, perhaps surprising, example is the bottlenose dolphin, which has been reported to kill its young through impact injuries . Another example is hamsters eating their young.