Sample Assignment on Infanticide – an inhuman behavior
Infanticide – an inhuman behavior

Infanticide ,an inhuman behavior, is the intentional killing of infants or offspring. Historical studies of infanticide have tended to focus on court prosecutions of individuals charged and tried for killing an infant. Most examples from history involve young, single mothers who killed their infant, generally regardless of sex, in the first minutes after its birth. These young women usually attempted to conceal their actions either by hiding the corpse or else by claiming that the infant was stillborn. Historical studies of infanticide have been limited to these analyses of court records, but is there another way to study occurrences of infanticide? Is there a method to study the larger married population’s treatment of unwanted offspring? It was long thought that married couples would not have practised infanticide. Single women killed their unwanted infants to protect their reputation, to allow for the possibility of a future marriage and legitimate children, and because of the economic strain a single mother faced. Pregnant married women did not have to deal with these issues, they had male parental support and society expected them to have children as, until very recently, there was no form of reliable birth control. However, as modern occurrences in India and China make clear, a relatively stable home environment and two parents do not necessarily equate to a desire for both male and female children without distinction. Under what circumstances and to what end might married couples have committed infanticide?

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Most stratified human societies elevate the societal and familial role of males. In early modern Europe, primogeniture and the essential transfer of dowries to males upon marriage elevated their status in society and the importance of having sons. This can still be seen in modern times where female infant neglect or, for more prosperous families, sex-specific abortion are prevalent. Examples from India, China, and Southeast Asia in the last several decades make it clear that parents invest time, emotion, and money in individual infants based on their sex, health, birth order, and the family’s socio-economic status. Parents attempt to create workable families, in which the sex of any given infant as well as the total number of offspring are factors affecting the types of decisions parents make. This idea that parents can choose how much to love a child is disconcerting, but evidence from mortuary and criminal records, from statistics on child abuse and abandonment, and from individual case studies from around the globe makes it clear that parents make difficult decisions when it comes to raising their children.

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Infant and childhood mortality before the advent of modern health care were occurrences affecting most families. Bellettini and Somaggia’s study of infant and childhood mortality in the suburbs of Bologna provides detailed insight into the realities facing the early modern parent. Using baptismal and other parish records for three parishes from the mid-17th to late-19th centuries, these historians charted the rate of mortality for infants less than seven days old, between seven and thirty days old, and between one and eleven months. They found that the risk of mortality dropped once a child survived its first week of life and that the rate of mortality in the first year of life varied seasonally. Prior to 1760, after which infant mortality began to decline steadily, the occurrence of infant death was exacerbated by frequent wars, famines, and epidemics and reached its annual peak during the cold winter months. In the parishes Bellettini and Somaggia examined, mortality prior to seven years of age reached as high as 40% in the late 17th century. [1]

Historians and historical demographers have charted the masculinity of infant mortality and have published findings suggesting differential neglect of female infants and, in some cases, even infanticide. David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s study of renaissance Florence included a discussion of infant mortality and the sex ratio of the general Tuscan population. They found that males outnumbered females by some 13,000 in Tuscany in 1427, with a sex ratio of 110 males for every 100 females in the city of Florence.[2] Given that male mortality rates tend to be higher than female for most stages of life, the high ratio of masculinity in Tuscany led these historians to question the whereabouts of females. The high rate of female infant abandonment can explain some of the shortage. Hospital records for the first half of the 15th century revealed that female infants were twice as likely to be abandoned as males, in some years constituting as many as 70% of abandoned infants.[3] However, this figure alone could not account for the substantial shortage of females in Tuscany. Although infanticide as a form of family planning is not investigated, these authors present it as a viable possibility. In terms of sex-specific neglect, Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber found that wealthier families were more likely to send daughters to distant wet nurses, increasing their chances of mortality, than 15 sons.

Gerard Delille’s study of Italian demography from the 17th to the 19th centuries included an assessment of differential rates of mortality amongst males and females. Delille found an excess of female mortality in comparison to male for individuals between 2 and 40 years of age. Because 20 -century figures make it clear that females had a lower risk of mortality at most age groups, Delille suggests that his findings are suspicious. Although differential nutrition and hygiene practices may explain higher than expected rates of female deaths, the high ratios of masculinity found for most age groups in 17th- and l8th century Italy lead Delille to conclude that female infanticide was a strong possibility.[4] Although Delille did not extend his investigation to a society-wide study of infanticide, his findings suggested its occurrence. For the 19th century, Richard Wall concluded that infanticide was not a common occurrence amongst the British upper class, but found an increased, and suspicious, rate of female infant mortality (for infants less than one year old) for later born children in his study of 16 parishes.[5]

These investigations into family dynamics reveal a variety of ways in which families dealt with uncertain economic futures. The works of Kertzer, Hanlon, and Corsini make clear that married parents resorted to abandonment when economic situations worsened. Despite the horrible conditions and low life expectancy in foundling hospitals, both married and single parents abandoned their infants and older children when household situations worsened. High rates of infant and childhood mortality desensitised parents to death. Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber and Wall found evidence of differential neglect of offspring based on sex, while Delille’s research yielded an inexplicably higher incidence of female deaths in most age groups within Italian society. While many of these studies implied that infanticide may have been common, only Hanlon investigated its occurrence in any detail.

Historians of Single-Mother Infanticide

Many historians have published on the occurrence of, and societal response to, single-parent infanticide. Laura Gowing, Mark Jackson, Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull have written on infanticide in England. Gowing’s “Secret births and Infanticide” uses judicial records to study 70 cases of neonatal infanticide from 1642-1680.[6] Gowing uses these cases to provide an overview of the types of women accused before tribunals of committing infanticide, generally young female domestics or poor single women, of the nature of witnesses and others who came forward and made statements to court officials, and of the treatment of these cases by legal officials.19 Likewise, Mark Jackson’s study of the trial of Harriet Vooght in 1865 includes an overview of court prosecutions of infanticide and legal statutes surrounding the issue from the 17th to 19th centuries.20 Their studies, coupled with others for 17ttl-20th century England, clearly define the frequency, process and community reaction to court prosecutions of infanticidal single-mothers.

Catherine Damme’s overview of infanticide from medieval to modern times also focuses on the murder of infants as they appear in judicial records. Studies on early modern Poland, Belgium, and Italy all find similar occurrences: young, single women, often orphaned or working as domestics, committing infanticide in order to protect their reputations or to keep their jobs.22 The bibliography on infanticide is rich with sources on the judicial process, legal statutes, and individual case studies of single women tried for killing their infants. Yet not apparent in the sources is the prevalence of infanticide. While court records reveal how many women were charged and perhaps what proportion of these charges resulted in a trial and conviction, court records cannot reveal how frequent an occurrence infanticide was. Without other sources, current understanding of past occurrences of infanticide is confined to a minute number of case studies from a variety of countries over time.

Social Scientists of Infanticide

Academics beyond the discipline of history, notably sociologists, socio-biologists, and anthropologists, have been studying infanticide for a variety of societies from across the globe in both present and past times. The methods employed by these scholars have increased knowledge of the nature and impact of infanticide and can be used to expand the information already gleaned by historians. While infanticide as a larger social issue and as a routine means of family planning practised by married couples has received very little academic attention within the field of history, recent studies in criminology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology provide new information on the issue of infanticide.

The two chapters of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s Homicide that discuss infanticide explain its occurrence using evolutionary psychology. These psychologists defend their claim that mothers, and occasionally fathers, make conscious decisions concerning the feasibility of raising a specific infant under present conditions. Citing infanticide as “the desperate decision of a rational strategist allocating scarce resources,” Daly and Wilson list some of the causes contributing to a mother’s decision to kill her child. Common justifications for infanticide are unreliable paternal investment in the infant, the child’s sex and position in the birth order of its siblings, the circumstances, both economic and social, of the mother, the mother’s potential to improve her own circumstances with or without a child, and the arrival of a new infant in close proximity to an older sibling which might threaten that sibling’s survival. Both Daly and Wilson and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy use the studies of a variety of sociologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists to provide examples of infanticide from a number of different societies.

Daly and Wilson’s study, which was based on ten years’ worth of criminal records and national statistics provided by the Detroit Police and Statistics Canada from the 1970s to 1980s, provides information on modern occurrences of homicide. For their sections on infanticide, Daly and Wilson categorized their data based on the age, marital, and socio-economic status of the mothers accused of killing their infants (children under one year old), the existence of older siblings, and paternal or other familial support. Daly and Wilson’s findings, in general, are harmonious with those of most historians. From the modern data, the vast majority of those charged with killing an infant was the child’s mother. The accused was generally younger than the average mother, single or without reliable spousal support, had a lower level of education, and came from a lower than average economic background.[7]

Daly and Wilson’s study supports the general conclusions of most historical inquiries concerning legal prosecutions for infanticide. Their employment of evolutionary psychology to explain maternal recourse to infanticide is not only relevant to young, single mothers. Evolutionary psychologists postulate that the inherent goal of human beings is to maximize their inclusive fitness. In this sense, “inclusive fitness” denotes the number of successful births for both males and females that result in adult children who can pass on their genes, either their own offspring, or those of close blood-relatives. According to the tenets of evolutionary psychology, genetic posterity is a necessary goal, conscious or not, of all humans. Numerous evolutionary psychologists have published detailed studies discussing the centrality of genetic posterity to the human psyche. Increased research in this field by a variety of academics, whose work is not purely confined to the sciences, has resulted in an abundance of studies on genetic posterity across many disciplines, most notably in psychology and anthropology. The basis of much of this research, that human beings consciously or subconsciously act in such a way as to promote their own, or their close blood-relatives, genetic posterity, has repercussions for many fields of research. In the field of history, studies of infant abandonment and infanticide can be understood in terms of evolutionary psychology. The motivations and implications of abandoning or killing one’s own child can be explained through psychology.

Evolutionary psychology makes clear the conundrum faced by young, single women at the prospect of raising an infant alone. The benefit of raising this infant, and perhaps securing future progeny through grandchildren, is weighed against the cost the infant will have on meagre economic resources and the detrimental effect raising this child might have on the success of a future relationship and any potential children who might result from it. Additionally, for much of history adult children housed and supported aging parents. When weighing the advantages and disadvantages of raising specific infants, single mothers had to consider the long-term repercussions such an investment might have on their future circumstances. According to this theory, infanticide results when the costs of raising a specific infant outweigh the hazards of securing a more stable future situation.

In theory, this line of reasoning should apply to married couples as well as single mothers. While married women are more likely to have stable spousal support and do not need to fear for their honour or reputation by having a child, the potential implications of the economic cost of an infant versus the potential benefit of a future without this infant certainly apply to legitimate births. Additionally, prior to the advent of modern contraception, women had few options for dealing with unwanted illegitimate and legitimate pregnancies. Methods of abortion were archaic and frequently resulted in maternal death, while abandonment was only really an option when a foundling hospital was situated nearby. Theoretically, when a household could not afford to raise another infant, it was in the family’s best interest to prevent the birth of another offspring at as early a stage as possible, it was “better to cut your losses before parental investment [was] heavy: contraception [was] better than abortion; early abortion [was] better than late abortion, abortion [was] better than infanticide…. Better to have a few viable offspring than many unviable ones”.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s groundbreaking work, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, provides a well-rounded case study of infanticide that is not confined to single mothers. An anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Blaffer Hrdy presents case studies of parental, particularly maternal, infanticide from such culturally diverse areas as modern Brazil, China, and India. In many of her examples, legitimate infants faced considerable risk of infanticide. Her discussion of infanticide reviews the inherent benefits, under certain conditions and from an evolutionary psychological perspective, of practising post-pregnancy family planning. Drawing on a number of examples from different cultures and types of primates, Blaffer Hrdy constructs a compelling explanation for the motivations behind maternal infanticide. She uses studies on primates to assess the similarities and differences between human parent-child relationships and those of monkeys and apes, the primates most biologically similar to us. Comparing humans from a variety of cultures and other primates from a variety of regions, Blaffer Hrdy notes the parental behaviours that separate humans from other primates. While humans are the only primates who practise adoption, we are also the primate most likely to practise sex-specific infanticide: “The fact that some human mothers give or withhold care depending on the infant’s sex, or some other specific attribute, is unexpected and curious not because mammalian mothers are unconditionally nurturing (they are not) but because other primates are”.

[1] Bellettini and Somaggia point out the specificity of the death registers in their parishes in noting cause of death and also the separation of deaths of children under age seven, making it easier to study child mortality from these sources. A. Bellettini and A. Samoggia, “Evolution differentielle et movement saisonnier de la mortality infantile et enfantile dans la banlieue de Bologne (XVII-XIX siecles)” Annates de Demographie historique (1983), 201.

[2] The authors note that the catasto and censuses employed in their research are less than inclusive, but the high ratio of males for nearly every age group led them to question if the exclusion of a number of females alone could accounted for the high ratio of masculinity. David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 131-133.

[3] Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families, 145-46. See Also: Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, “L’enfance en Toscane au d6but du XV siecle,” Annates de D6mographie Historique (1973), 110.

[4] Gerard Delille, “Un probleme de d&nographie historique; hommes et femmes devant la mort,” Melanges de I’Ecole Frangaise de Rome (1974) 434-437.

[5] Richard Wall, “Inferring Differential Neglect of Females from Mortality Data,” Annates de Demographie Historique (1981), 135-137.

[6] Laura Gowing, “Secret Births and Infanticide in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 156 (August 1997): 87-115.

[7] Daly and Wilson note that between 1977-83 single mothers in Canada accounted for only 12% of births but were the defendants in more than half of all charges of infanticide for the same period. Teenage mothers were also disproportionately represented, and were more than four times more likely to kill their child than women between 25 and 29 years of age. Daly and Wilson, Homicide, 62-64.