Infanticide: Wikis


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Infanticide is the practice of intentionally killing an infant. Often it is the mother who commits the act, but criminology recognizes various forms of non-maternal child murder. In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible. Female infanticide is more common than the killing of male offspring due to sex-selective infanticide.

In the United Kingdom, the Infanticide Act defines "infanticide" as a specific crime equivalent to manslaughter that can only be committed by the mother intentionally killing her own baby during the first twelve months of its life; in other cultures, the concept of infanticide includes the intentional killing of children older than twelve months. This article addresses the practice of infanticide within multiple cultural and historical contexts.


Infanticide throughout history and pre-history

The practice of infanticide has taken many forms. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as the one practiced in ancient Carthage, may be only the most notorious example in the ancient world. Regardless of the cause, throughout history infanticide has been common. Anthropologist Laila Williamson notes that "Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule."[1]

A frequent method of infanticide in ancient Europe and Asia was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to die by exposure (i.e. hypothermia, hunger, thirst, or animal attack).[2][3] Infant abandonment still occurs in modern societies.[4]

In at least one island in Oceania, infanticide was carried out until the 20th century by suffocating the infant,[5] while in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in the Inca Empire it was carried out by sacrifice (see below).

Paleolithic and Neolithic

Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide in order to control their numbers so that their lands could support them. Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births,[6] while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%.[1] Both anthropologists believed that these high rates of infanticide persisted until the development of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution.[7] Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era.[8] Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism.[9] The children where not necessarily actively killed, but neglect and intentional malnourishment may also have occurred, as proposed by Vicente Lull as an explanation for an apparent surplus of men and the below average height of women in prehistoric Menorca.[10]

In ancient history

Child sacrifice, the ritualistic killing of children in order to please supernatural beings, was far more common in ancient history than in present times.[citation needed]

In the New World

Archaeologists have uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice at several locations.[7] Some of the best attested examples are the diverse rites which were part of the religious practices in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.[11][12][13]

In the Old World

Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Infants were offered to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times (as in the verb "to decimate" the population). Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage "[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith."[7] Besides the Carthaginians, other Phoenicians, and the Canaanites, Moabites and Sepharvites offered their first-born as a sacrifice to their gods.

Ancient Egypt

In Egyptian households at all social levels children of both sexes were valued and there is no evidence of infanticide.[14] The religion of the Ancient Egyptians forbade infanticide and during the Greco-Roman period they rescued abandoned babies from manure heaps, a not uncommon method of infanticide by Greeks or Romans, and were allowed to either adopt them as foundlings or raise them as slaves, often giving them names such as "copro -" to memorialise their rescue.[15] Strabo considered it a peculiarity of the Egyptians that every child must be reared.[16] Diodorus indicates infanticide was a punishable offence.[17] Egypt was heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile to irrigate the land and in years of low inundation severe famine could occur with breakdowns in social order resulting, notably between 930-1070 CE and 1180-1350 CE. Instances of cannibalism are recorded during these periods but it is unknown if this happened during the pharaonic era of Ancient Egypt.[18] Beatrix Midant-Reynes describes human sacrifice as having occurred at Abydos in the early dynastic period (c. 3150-2850 BCE),[19] while Jan Assmann asserts there is no clear evidence of human sacrifice ever happening in Ancient Egypt.[20]


Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods.[21] Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns.[21] It is estimated that child sacrifice was practiced for centuries in the region. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet (from the Hebrew taph or toph, to burn) by the Canaanites. Writing in the 3rd century BCE, Kleitarchos, one of the historians of Alexander the Great, described that the infants rolled into the flaming pit. Diodorus Siculus wrote that babies were roasted to death inside the burning pit of the god Baal Hamon, a bronze statue.[22][23]

Greece and Rome
Medea killing her sons, by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862).

The historical Greeks considered the practice of adult and child sacrifice barbarous.[24] However, exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece. In Greece the decision to expose a child was typically the father's, although in Sparta the decision was made by a group of elders.[25] Exposure was the preferred method of disposal, as that act in itself was not murder; moreover, the exposed child technically had a chance of being rescued by the gods or any passersby.[26] This very situation was a recurring motif in Greek mythology.[27]

The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it.[28] A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 BCE, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:

"I am still in Alexandria. ... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it."[29][30]

In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to death by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374 CE, but offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted.[31]

According to mythological legend, Romulus and Remus, twin infant sons of the war god, Mars, survived near-infanticide after being tossed into the Tiber River. According to the mythology, they were raised by wolves and later founded the city of Rome.


Although there are several instances in the Bible of ancient Hebrews sacrificing their children to heathen gods, against explicit prohibitions in the Torah (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3 & 17:17, 30-31 & 21:6 & 23:4, 10; Jeremiah 7:31-32 & 19:5 & 32:35; Ezekiel 16: 20-21, 36; Judges 11:31), Judaism prohibits infanticide.

Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews "regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children."[32] Josephus, whose works give an important insight into first-century Judaism, wrote that God "forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward."[33]

The Mosaic laws expressly forbade the Jews to offer sacrifices to Moloch. "You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God" (Lev. 18:21).[34].

Years later, the practice existed among the Jews as reported by the prophet, Jeremiah, whose writings date to the period around 629 - 585 B.C.

Jeremiah 32:35:

And they built the high places of the Ba‘al, which are in the valley of Ben-hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech; which I did not command them, nor did it come into my mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

Pagan European tribes

In his book Germania, Tacitus wrote that the ancient Germanic tribes enforced a similar prohibition. He found such mores remarkable and commented: "[The Germani] hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child." Modern scholarship differs. John Boswell believed that in ancient Germanic tribes unwanted children were exposed, usually in the forest.[35] "It was the custom of the [Teutonic] pagans, that if they wanted to kill a son or daughter, they would be killed before they had been given any food."[35] Usually children born out of wedlock were disposed that way.

In his highly influential Pre-historic Times, John Lubbock described burnt bones indicating the practice of child sacrifice in pagan Britain.[36]

The last canto, Marjatan poika (Son of Marjatta), of Finnish national epic Kalevala describes an assumed infanticide. Väinämöinen orders the infant bastard son of Marjatta to be drowned in marsh.

The Íslendingabók, a main source for the early history of Iceland, recounts that on the Conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 1000 it was provided - in order to make the transition more palatable to Pagans - that "(...)the old laws allowing exposure of newborn children will remain in force". However, this provision - like other concessions made at the time to the Pagans - was abolished some years later.


Christianity rejected infanticide. The Teachings of the Apostles or Didache said "You shall not kill that which is born."[37] The Epistle of Barnabas stated an identical command.[38] So widely accepted was this teaching in Christendom that apologists Tertullian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr and Lactantius also maintained that exposing a baby to death was a wicked act.[2] In 318 CE Constantine I considered infanticide a crime, and in 374 CE Valentinian I mandated to rear all children (exposing babies, especially girls, was still common). The Council of Constantinople declared that infanticide was homicide, and in 589 CE the Third Council of Toledo took measures against the Spanish custom of killing their own children.[31]

Middle Ages

Whereas theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents.[3] According to William L. Langer, exposure in the Middle Ages "was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference".[39] At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river even in daylight.[40]

Child sacrifice was practiced by the Gauls, Celts and the Irish. "They would kill their piteous wretched offspring with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood around Crom Cruaich", a deity of pre-Christian Ireland.[41]

Unlike other European regions, in the Middle Ages the German mother had the right to expose the newborn.[42] In Gotland, Sweden, children were also sacrificed.[43] Infant exposure, and the eating of horsemeat, were two concessions made when the pagan Norse Icelanders eventually adopted Christianity in the year 1000.

In the High Middle Ages, abandoning unwanted children finally eclipsed infanticide. Unwanted children were left at the door of church or abbey, and the clergy was assumed to take care of their upbringing. This practise also saw the birth of the first orphanages.


The pre-Islamic Arabian society practiced infanticide as a form of "post-partum birth control".[44] Regarding the prevalence of this practice, we know it was "common enough among the pre-Islamic Arabs to be assigned a specific term, waʾd".[45] Infanticide was practiced either out of destitution (thus practiced on males and females alike), or as sacrifices to gods, or as "disappointment and fear of social disgrace felt by a father upon the birth of a daughter".[44]

Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, who practiced it during severe famine.[46] Others state that "female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time" (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.[7][47]

Infanticide is explicitly prohibited by the Qur'an.[48] "And do not kill your children for fear of poverty; We give them sustenance and yourselves too; surely to kill them is a great wrong." [49]

The Qur'an rejected the practice of infanticide. Together with polytheism and homicide, infanticide was regarded as a grave sin (see 6:151 and 60:12).[44] Infanticide is also implicitly denounced in the story of Pharaoh's slaughter of the male children of Israelites (see 2:49; 7:127; 7:141; 14:6; 28:4 ;40:25). The Qur'an also mentions the story, not intended as an example to be followed, of the killing of an unbelieving young man by khidr. This was done in order to preserve the young man's faithful parents from disobedience and ingratitude which the young man was destined to bring to their life (see 18:74; 18:80).[44]


In Russia, peasants sacrificed their sons and daughters to the pagan god Perun. Although Church law forbade infanticide, it used to be practiced. Some rural people threw children to the swine. In Medieval Russia secular laws did not deal with what, for the church, was a crime.[50] The Svans killed the newborn females by filling their mouths with hot ashes.[51]

In Kamchatka, babies were killed and thrown to the dogs.[51] American explorer George Kennan noted that among the Koryaks, a Mongoloid people of north-eastern Siberia, infanticide was still common in the 19th century. One of the twins was always sacrificed.[52]



Marco Polo, the famed explorer, saw newborns exposed in Manzi.[53] China's society promoted gendercide. Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BCE, who developed a school of law, wrote: "As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death."[54] Among the Hakka people, and in Yunnan, Anhwei, Szechwan, Jiangxi and Fukien a method of killing the baby was to put her into a bucket of cold water, which was called "baby water".[55]


Since feudal Japan the common slang for infanticide was "mabiki" which means to pull plants from an overcrowded garden. A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby's mouth and nose.[56] Mabiki persisted in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[57]

South Asia

Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in South Asia for illegitimate female children during the Middle Ages. According to Firishta, as soon as the illegitimate female child was born she was held "in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death".[58] The practice of female infanticide was also common among the Kutch, Kehtri, Nagar, Gujarat, Miazed, Kalowries in India inhabitants, and also among the Sind in British India.[59]

It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century.[60]


In Africa some children were killed because of fear that they were an evil omen or because they were considered unlucky. Twins were usually put to death in Arebo; as well as by the Nama Hottentots of South West Africa; in the Lake Victoria Nyanza region; by the Tswana in Portuguese East Africa; among the Ilso and Igbo people of Nigeria; and by the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.[7] The Kikuyu, Kenya's most populous ethnic group, practiced ritual killing of twins.[61] If a mother died in childbirth among the Ibo people of Nigeria, the newborn was buried alive. It suffered a similar fate if the father died.[62]

North America

Ritual child sacrifice was practiced in the New World at times when in Western Europe it was largely abandoned.


There is no agreement about the actual estimates of the frequency of newborn female infanticide in the Inuit population. Carmel Schrire mentions diverse studies ranging from 15-50% to 80%.[63]

Polar Inuks killed the child by throwing him or her into the sea.[64] There is even a legend in Inuit mythology, "The Unwanted Child", where a mother throws her child into the fjord.

The Yukon and the Mahlemuit tribes of Alaska exposed the female newborns by first stuffing their mouths with grass before leaving them to die.[65] In Arctic Canada the Eskimos exposed their babies on the ice and left to die.[39]

Female Inuit infanticide disappeared in the 1930s and 1940s after contact with the Western cultures from the South.[66]


The Handbook of North American Indians reports infanticide and cannibalism among the Dene Indians and those of the Mackenzie Mountains.[67][68]

Native Americans

In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide.[69] For the Maidu native Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well.[70] In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.[71]


Bernal Díaz recounted that, after landing on the Veracruz coast, they came across a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. "That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol".[72] In The Conquest of New Spain Díaz describes more child sacrifices in the towns before the Spaniards reached the large Aztec city Tenochtitlan.

South America

Although academic data of infanticides among the indigenous people in South America is not as abundant as the one of North America, the estimates seem to be similar.


The Tapirapé indigenous people of Brazil allowed no more than three children per woman. Furthermore, no more than two had to be of the same sex. If the rule was broken infanticide was practiced.[73] The people in the Bororo tribe killed all the newborns that did not appear healthy enough. Infanticide is also documented in the case of the Korubo people in the Amazon.[74]

Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia

While Capacocha was practiced in the Peruvian large cities, child sacrifice in the pre-Columbian tribes of the region is less documented. However, even today studies on the Aymara Indians reveal high incidences of mortality among the newborn, especially female deaths, suggesting infanticide.[75] The Abipones, a small tribe of Guaycuran stock, of about 5,000 by the end of the 18th century in Paraguay, practiced systematic infanticide; with never more than two children being reared in one family. The machigenga killed their disabled children. Infanticide among the Chaco in Paraguay was estimated as high as 50% of all newborns in that tribe, who were usually buried.[76] The infanticidal custom had such roots among the Ayoreo in Bolivia and Paraguay that it persisted until the late 20th century.[77]

Present day

In November 2008 it was reported that in Agibu and Amosa villages of Gimi region of Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea where tribal fighting in the region of Gimi has been going on since 1986 (many of the clashes arising over claims of sorcery) women had agreed that if they stopped producing males, allowing only female babies to survive, their tribe's stock of boys would go down and there would be no men in the future to fight. They agreed to have all new-born male babies killed. It is not known how many male babies were killed by being smothered, but it had reportedly happened to all males over a 10 year period and probably was still happening.[78]

A drawing by Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya illustrating a scene she witnessed in a Soviet Gulag: a prisoner trying to kill her baby by choking him with her own milk. Kersnovskaya managed to stop the killing.

While the practice has become less common in the Western world, multiple well known cases have been noted in the popular press—including those of Andrea Yates who drowned her children and, most recently, Véronique Courjault, who was found to have frozen her infants [79]. The frequency has been estimated to be approximately 1 in 3000-5000 children of all ages [80] and 2.1 per 100,000 newborns per year[81]. It is thought that infanticide today continues at a much higher rate in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India.[82] Female infants, then and even now, are particularly vulnerable, a factor in gendercide.

In Africa

In spite of the fact that it is illegal, in Benin, West Africa, parents secretly continue with infanticidal customs.[83]

In India

The practice has continued in some rural areas of India.[84][85] Infanticide is illegal in India.[86]

According to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million girls and women are missing in India's population as a result of systematic sex discrimination. The UNICEF study has been criticized by the Indian Medical Association for utilizing outdated data and for deliberately demonizing Indians for the purposes of politics[87][88]

The situation in China

There have been some accusations that infanticide occurs in the People's Republic of China due to the one-child policy.[89] 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.[90][91] Recent studies suggest that over 40 million girls and women are 'missing' in China (Klasen and Wink 2003).[92]

In North America

The United States ranked eleventh for infants under 1 year killed, and fourth for those killed from 1 through 14 years (the latter case not necessarily involving filicide).[93] In the U.S. over six hundred children were killed by their parents in 1983.[94] In Canada 114 cases of child murder by a parent were reported during 1964-1968.[95] Some of the cases that made news were those of Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, Genene Jones, Marybeth Tinning, Melissa Drexler, Dena Schlosser and Waneta Hoyt.

In 2009, Texas state representative Jessica Farrar proposed legislation that would define infanticide as a distinct and lesser crime than homicide.[96]

Child euthanasia

Child euthanasia is a controversial form of euthanasia which is applied to children that are gravely ill or that suffer from important birth defects. Some critics have compared child euthanasia to infanticide.

Explanations for the practice

Diverse and often contradictory explanations have been proposed to account for infanticide.


Many historians believe the reason to be primarily economic, with more children born than the family is prepared to support. In societies that are patrilineal and patrilocal, the family may choose to allow more sons to live and kill some daughters, as the former will support their birth family until they die, whereas the latter will leave economically and geographically to join their husband's family, possibly only after the payment of a burdensome dowry price. Thus the decision to bring up a boy is more economically rewarding to the parents.[7] However, this does not explain why infanticide would occur equally among rich and poor, nor why it would be as frequent during decadent periods of the Roman Empire as during earlier, less affluent, periods.[7]

UK 18th and 19th Century

Instances of infanticide in Britain in 18th and 19th century is often attributed to the economic position of the women, with juries committing pious perjury in many subsequent court cases. The knowledge of the difficulties faced in the 18th century by those women who attempted to keep their children can be seen as reason for juries to show compassion. If the woman chose to keep the child, society was not set up to ease the pressure placed upon the woman, legally, socially or economically.[97]

In mid-18th century Britain there was assistance available for women who were not able to raise their children. The Foundling Hospital opened in 1756 and was able to take in some of the illegitimate children. However, the conditions within the hospital caused Parliament to withdraw funding and the governors to live off of their own incomes.[98] This resulted in a stringent entrance policy, with the committee requiring that the hospital:

'Will not receive a child that is more than a year old, nor the child of a domestic servant, nor any child whose father can be compelled to maintain it'.[99]

Once a mother had admitted her child to the hospital, the hospital did all it could to ensure that the parent and child were not re-united.[99]

Macfarlane argues in Illegitimacy and Illegitimates in Britain (1980) that English society greatly concerned itself with the burden that a bastard child places upon its communities and had gone to some lengths to ensure that the father of the child is identified in order to maintain its wellbeing.[100] Assistance could be gained through maintenance payments from the father, however, this was capped ‘at a miserable 2s and 6d a week’.[101] If the father got into arrears with the payments he could only be asked ‘to pay a maximum of 13 weeks arrears’.[101]

Despite the accusations of some that women were getting a free hand-out there is evidence that many women were far from receiving adequate assistance from their parish. ‘Within Leeds in 1822 … relief was limited to 1s per week’.[102] Sheffield required women to enter the workhouse, whereas Halifax gave no relief to the women who required it. The prospect of entering the workhouse was certainly something to be avoided. Lionel Rose quotes Dr Joseph Rogers in Massacre of the Innocents … (1986). Dr Rogers, who was employed by a London workhouse in 1856 stated that conditions in the nursery were ‘wretchedly damp and miserable … [and] … overcrowded with young mothers and their infants’.[103]

The loss of social standing for a servant girl was a particular problem in respect of producing a bastard child as they relied upon a good character reference in order to maintain their job and more importantly, to get a new or better job. In a large number of trials for the crime of infanticide, it is the servant girl that stood accused.[104] The disadvantage of being a servant girl is that they had to live to the social standards of their superiors or risk dismissal and no references. Whereas within other professions, such as in the factory, the relationship between employer and employee was much more anonymous and the mother would be better able to make other provisions, such as employing a minder.[105] The result of the lack of basic social care in Britain in the 18th and 19th century is the numerous accounts in court records of women, particularly servant girls, standing trial for the murder of their child.[106]

Population control

Marvin Harris estimated that among Paleolithic hunters 23-50% of newborn children were killed. He argued that the goal was to preserve the 0.001% population growth of that time.[107] He also wrote that female infanticide may be a form of population control.[107] Population control is achieved not only by limiting the number of potential mothers; increased fighting among men for access to relatively scarce wives would also lead to a decline in population. For example, on the Melanesian island of Tikopia infanticide was used to keep a stable population in line with its resource base.[5] Although additional research by Marvin Harris and William Divale supports this argument, it has been criticized as an example of environmental determinism.[108]

Customs and taboos

In 1888, Lieut. F. Elton reported that Ugi beach people in the Solomon Islands killed their infants at birth by burying them, and women were also said to practice abortion. They reported that it was too much trouble to raise a child, and instead preferred to buy one from the bush people.[109] Larry S. Milner, author of Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life, a treatise on infanticide, believes that superstition has always reigned supreme in tribal religion. In chapters 9 through 21 Milner explores diverse customs and taboos as possible causes of infanticide, from punishment and shame to poverty, famine, revenge, depression and insanity and superstitious omens.


A minority of academics subscribe to an alternate school of thought, considering the practice as "early infanticidal childrearing".[110] They attribute parental infanticidal wishes to massive projection or displacement of the parents' unconscious onto the child, because of intergenerational, ancestral abuse by their own parents.[111] Clearly, an infanticidal parent may have multiple motivations, conflicts, emotions, and thoughts about their baby and their relationship with their baby, which are often colored both by their individual psychology, current relational context and attachment history, and, perhaps most saliently, their psychopathology[112] (See also Psychiatric section below) Almeida, Merminod, and Schechter[113] suggest that parents with fantasies, projections, and delusions involving infanticide need to be taken seriously and assessed carefully, whenever possible, by an interdisciplinary team that includes infant mental health specialists or mental health practitioners who have experience in working with parents, children, and families.

Wider effects

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.[110] Conversely, studying societies that practice infanticide Géza Róheim reported that even infanticidal mothers in New Guinea, who ate a child, did not affect the personality development of the surviving children; that "these are good mothers who eat their own children".[114] Harris and Divale's work on the relationship between female infanticide and warfare suggests that there are, however, extensive negative effects.


Postpartum psychosis has also been signaled as a causative factor of infanticide. Stuart S. Asch, MD, a Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University established the connections between some cases of infanticide and post-partum depression.[115],[116] The books, From Cradle to Grave,[117] and The Death of Innocents,[118] describe selected cases of maternal infanticide and the investigative research of Professor Asch working in concert with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. Stanley Hopwood wrote that childbirth and lactation entail severe stress on the female sex, and that under certain circumstances attempts at infanticide and suicide are common.[119] A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed that 44% of filicidal fathers had a diagnosis of psychosis.[120] In addition to postpartum psychosis, dissociative psychopathology and sociopathy have also been found to be associated with neonaticide in some cases[121]


Larry Milner writes in the concluding chapter of his study of infanticide:

So with this strata of support, I have concluded that it is a normal — a "natural"— trait for a human being to be willing to kill his or her own child, especially during the first year of life, and that there are genetic factors which are determinative of this compulsion.[7]

However, Milner's treatise includes at the same time cultural hypotheses for the practice, and his approach to the subject has been criticized as both scholarly and an idealized view of infanticide.[122]

Sex selection

Sex selection may be one of the contributing factors of infanticide. In the absence of sex-selective abortion, sex-selective infanticide can be deduced from very skewed birth statistics. The biologically normal sex ratio for humans is approximately 105 males per 100 females; normal ratios hardly ranging beyond 102-108.[123] When a society has an infant male to female ratio which is significantly higher than the biological norm, sex selection can usually be inferred.

"100 million missing women"

The idea of there being "100 million missing women", largely in Asia, originated with or was popularised by an influential 1990 essay by Amartya Sen.[124]

In other animals

Infanticide occurs in other animals, such as in Hanuman Langurs.

Although human infanticide has been widely studied, the practice has been observed in many other species of the animal kingdom since it was first seriously studied by Yukimaru Sugiyama.[125] These include from microscopic rotifers and insects, to fish, amphibians, birds and mammals.[126] Infanticide can be practiced by both males and females.

See also


  1. ^ a b Williamson, Laila (1978). "Infanticide: an anthropological analysis". in Kohl, Marvin. Infanticide and the Value of Life. NY: Prometheus Books. pp. 61–75.. 
  2. ^ a b Justin Martyr, First Apology.
  3. ^ a b Boswell, John Eastburn (1984). "Exposition and oblation: the abandonment of children and the ancient and medieval family". American Historical Review 89 (1): 10–33. doi:10.2307/1855916. 
  4. ^ "Infant abandonment and institutionalisation still on the rise". Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  5. ^ a b Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. ISBN 0-14-303655-6.
  6. ^ Birdsell, Joseph, B. (1986). "Some predictions for the Pleistocene based on equilibrium systems among recent hunter gatherers". in Lee, Richard & Irven DeVore. Man the Hunter. Aldine Publishing Co.. pp. 239.. 
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External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

INFANTICIDE, the killing of a newly-born child or of the matured foetus. When practised by civilized peoples the subject of infanticide concerns the criminologist and the jurist; but its importance in anthropology, as it involves a widespread practice among primitive or savage nations, requires more detailed attention. J. F. McLennan (Studies in Ancient History, pp. 75 et seq.) suggests that the practice of female infanticide was once universal, and that in it is to be found the origin of exogamy. Much evidence, however, has been adduced against this hypothesis by Herbert Spencer and Edward Westermarck. Infanticide, both of males and females, is far less widespread among savage races than McLennan supposed. It certainly is common in many lands, and more females are killed than males; but among many fierce and savage peoples it is almost unknown. Thus among the Tuski, Ahts, Western Eskimo and the Botocudos new-born children are killed now and then, if they are weak and deformed, or for some other reason (such as the superstition attaching to birth of twins) but without distinction of sex. Among the Dakota Indians and Crees female infanticide is rare. The Blackfoot Indians believe that a woman guilty of such an act will never reach " the Happy Mountain " after death, but will hover round the scene of her misdeed with branches of trees tied to her legs. The Aleutians hold that child-murder brings misfortune on the whole village. Among the Abipones it is common, but the boys are usually the victims, because it is customary to buy a wife for a son, whereas a grown daughter will always command a price. In Africa, where a warm climate and abundance of food simplify the problem of existence, the crime is not common. Herr Valdau relates that a Bakundu woman, accused of it, was condemned to death. In Samoa, in the Mitchell and Hervey Islands, and in parts of New Guinea, it was unheard of; while among the cannibals, the Solomon Islanders, it occurred rarely. A theory has been advanced by L. Fison (Kanailaroi and Kurnai, 1880) that female infanticide is far less common among the lower savages than among the more advanced tribes. Among some of the most degraded of human beings, such as the Yahgans of Tierra del Fuego, the crime was unknown, except when committed by the mother " from jealousy or hatred of her husband or because of desertion and wretchedness." :It is said that certain Californian Indians were never guilty of child-murder before the arrival of the whites; while Wm. Ellis (Polynesian Researches, i. 249) thinks it most probable that the custom was less prevalent in earlier than later Polynesian history. The weight of evidence tends to support Darwin's theory that during the earliest period of human development man did not lose that strong instinct, the love of his young, and consequently did not practice infanticide; that, in short, the crime is not characteristic of primitive races.

Infanticide maybe said to arise from four reasons. It may be (I) an act of callous brutality or to satisfy cannibalistic cravings. A Fuegian, Darwin relates, dashed his child's brains out for upsetting a basket of fish. An Australian, seeing his infant son ill, killed, roasted and ate him. In some parts of Africa the negroes bait lion-traps with their own children. Some South American Indians, such as the Moxos, abandon or kill them without reason; while African and Polynesian cannibals eat them without the excuse of the periodic famines which made the Tasmanians regard the birth of a child as a piece of good fortune.

2. Or infanticide may be the result of the struggle for existence. Thus in Polynesia, while the climate ensures food in plenty, the relative smallness of the islands imposed the custom on all families without distinction. In the Hawaiian Islands all children, after the third or fourth, were strangled or buried alive. At Tahiti fathers had the right (and used it) of killing their newlyborn children by suffocation. The chiefs were obliged by custom to kill all their daughters. The society of the Areois, famous in the Society Islands, imposed infanticide upon the women members by oath. In other islands all girl-children were spared, but only two boys in each family were reared. The difficulties of suckling partly explain the custom of killing twins. For the same reason the Eskimo and Red Indians used to bury the infant with' the mother who died in child-birth. Among warrior and hunter tribes, where women could not act as beasts of burden as in agricultural communities, and where a large number of girls were likely to attract the hostile attentions of neighbouring tribesmen, girl-babies were murdered. Arabs, in ancient times, buried alive the majority of female children. In many lands infanticide was regarded as a meritorious act on the part of a parent, done, as a precaution against famine, in the interests of the tribe. In other parts of the world, infanticide results from customs which impose heavy burdens on child-rearing. Of these artificial hardships the best example is afforded by India. There the practice, though forbidden by both the Vedas and the Koran, prevailed among the Rajputs and certain aboriginal tribes. Among the aristocratic Rajputs, it was thought dishonourable that a girl should remain unmarried. Moreover,. a girl may not marry below her caste; she ought to marry her superior, or at least her equal. This reasoning was most powerful with the highest castes, in which the disproportion of the sexes. was painfully apparent. But, assuming marriage to be possible, it was ruinously expensive to the bride's father, the cost in the case of some rajahs having been known to exceed ioo,000. To avoid all this, the Rajput killed a proportion of his daughters - sometimes in a very singular way. A pill of tobacco and bhang might be given to the new-born child; or it was drowned in milk; 1 or the mother's breast was smeared with opium or the juice of the poisonous datura. A common method was to cover the child's mouth with a plaster of cow-dung, before it drew breath. Infanticide was also practised to a small extent by some sects of the aboriginal Khonds and by the poorer hill-tribes. of the Himalayas. Where infanticide occurs in India, though it really rests on the economic facts stated, there is usually some poetical tradition of its origin. Infanticide from motives of prudence was common among some American Indian tribes of the northwest, with whom the " potlatch " was an essential part of their daughter's marriage ceremonies.

3. Or infanticide may be in the nature of a religious observance. The gods must be appeased with blood, and it is believed that no sacrifice can be so pleasing to them as the child of the worshipper. Such were the motives impelling parents to the burning of children in the worship of Moloch. In India children were thrown into the sacred river Ganges, and adoration paid to the alligators who fed on them. Where the custom prevails as a sacrifice the male child is usually the victim.

4. Or, finally, infanticide may have a social or political reason. Thus at Sparta (and in other places in early Greek and Roman history) weakly or deformed children were killed by order of the state, a custom approved in the ideal systems of Aristotle and Plato, and still observed among the Eskimo and the Kamchadales.


Herbert Spencer, Principles of Sociology, i. 614 619; McLennan, Studies in Ancient History, pp. 75 et seq.; McLennan, " Exogamy and Endogamy " in the Fortnightly Review, xxi. 884 et seq.; Darwin, Descent of Man, ii. 400 et seq.; L. Fison,. and A. W. Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880); Westermarck, History of Human Marriage (1894); Browne, Infanticide: Its Origin, Progress and Suppression (London, 1857); Lord Avebury, Prehistoric Times (1900), and Origin of Civilization (1902).


The crime of infanticide among civilized nations is still frequent. It is however due in most cases to abnormal causes, such as a sudden access of insanity, privation, unreasoning dislike to the child, &c. It is most closely connected with illegitimacy in the class of farm and domestic servants, the more common motive being the terror of the mother of incurring the disgrace with which society visits the more venial offence. Often, however, it is inspired by no better motive than the wish to escape the burden of the child's support. The granting of affiliation orders thus tends to save the lives of many children,. though it provides a motive for the paramour sometimes to share in the crime. The laws of the European states differ widely on this subject - some of them treating infanticide as a special crime, others regarding it merely as a case of murder I In Baluchistan, where children are often drowned in milk, there is a euphemistic proverb: " The lady's daughter died drinking milk.

of unusually difficult proof. In the law of England infanticide is murder or manslaughter according to the presence or absence of deliberation. The infant must be a human being in the legal sense; and " a child becomes a human being when it has completely proceeded in a living state from the body of its mother, whether it has breathed or not, and whether it has an independent circulation or not, and whether the navel-string is severed or not; and the killing of such a child is homicide when it dies after birth in consequence of injuries received before, during or after birth." A child in the womb or in the act of birth, though it may have breathed, is therefore not a human being, the killing of which amounts to homicide. The older law of child murder under a statute of James I. consisted of cruel presumptions against the mother, and it was not till 1803 that trials for that offence were placed under the ordinary rules of evidence. The crown now takes upon itself the onus of proving in every case that the child has been alive. This is often a matter of difficulty, and hence a frequent alternative charge is that of concealment of birth (see Birth), or concealment of pregnancy in Scotland. It is the opinion of the most eminent of British medical jurists that this presumption has tended to increase infanticide. Apart from this, the technical definition of human life has excited a good deal of comment and some indignation. The definition allows many wicked acts to go unpunished. The experience of assizes in England shows that many children are killed when it is impossible to prove that they were wholly born. The distinction taken by the law was probably comprehended by the minds of the class to which most of the unhappy mothers belong. Partly to meet this complaint it was suggested to the Royal Commission of 1866 that killing during birth, or within seven days thereafter, should be an offence punishable with penal servitude. The second complaint is of an opposite character - partly that infanticide by mothers is not a fit subject for capital punishment, and partly that, whatever be the intrinsic character of the act, juries will not convict or the executive will not carry out the sentence. Earl Russell gave expression to this feeling when he proposed that no capital sentence should be pronounced upon mothers for the killing of children within six months after birth. When there has been a verdict of murder, sentence of death must be passed, but the practice of the Home Office, as laid down in 1908, is invariably to commute the death sentence to penal servitude for life. The circumstances of the case and the disposition and general progress of the prisoners under discipline in a convict prison are then determining factors in the length of subsequent detention, which rarely exceeds three years. After release, the prisoner's further progress is carefully watched, and if it is seen to be to her advantage the conditions of her release are cancelled and she is restored to complete freedom.

In India measures against the practice were begun towards the end of the 18th century by Jonathan Duncan and Major Walker. They were continued by a series of able and earnest officers during the 19th century. One of its chief events, representing many minor occurrences, was the Amritsar durbar of 1853, which was arranged by Lord Lawrence. At that meeting the chiefs residing in the Punjab and the trans-Sutlej states signed an agreement engaging to expel from caste every one who committed infanticide, to adopt fixed and moderate rates of marriage expenses, and to exclude from these ceremonies the minstrels and beggars who had so greatly swollen the expense. According to the present law, if the female children fall below a certain percentage in any tract or among any tribe in northern India where infanticide formerly prevailed, the suspected village is placed under police supervision, the cost being charged to the locality. By these measures, together with a strictly enforced system of reporting births and deaths, infanticide has been almost trampled out; although some of the Rajput clans keep their female offspring suspiciously close to the lowest average which secures them from surveillance.

It is difficult to say to what extent infanticide prevails in the United Kingdom. At one time a large number of children were murdered in England for the purpose of obtaining the burial money from a benefit club,' but protection against this risk has been provided for by the Friendly Societies Act 1896, and the Collecting Societies Act 1896. The neglect or killing of nurse-children is treated under Baby-Farming, and Law relating to children.

In the United States, the elements of this offence are practically the same as in England. The wilful killing of an unborn child is not manslaughter unless made so by statute. To constitute manslaughter under Laws N.Y. 1869, ch. 631, by attempts to produce miscarriage, the " quickening " of the child must be averred and proved (Evans v. People, 49 New York Rep. 86; see also Wallace v. State, 7 Texas app. 570).

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