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Infanticide or "Post-natal Abortion"

Infanticide is a problem that is becoming an epidemic. According to Patricia Pearson, in her book When She Was Bad (Random House of Canada, also available from Viking), it is "The Problem That Still Has No Name." That is the title of a chapter in her book that concerns itself with the issue of child murder. It is a problem that we don't hear much about, unless particularly gruesome instances of it occur – instances involving blood, broken bones, torture – and if somebody is sufficiently bothered to take a close look into the possibility that violence or other willful acts were the cause of the death of a child.

At the opening of this chapter of her book, Patricia Pearson shows the following two quotes:

With regard to the public, [infanticide] causes no alarm, because it is a crime which can be committed only by mothers upon their newly born children.

— SIR JAMES FITZJAMES STEPHEN, eighteenth-century jurist

The power of the mother ... is to give or withhold survival itself.

— ADRIENNE RICH, twentieth-century writer

Infanticide, a word that became part of our language in about 1656, a crime that is reported in the New Testament, although it is not called infanticide there – in that case it involved the murder of all male children aged one year or younger in the town of Bethlehem. It was done by the soldiers of Herode and therefore remembered well – it was done by men.

Infanticide, a euphemism for the murder of children.

In 1922, in England, the crime of murder was reduced to manslaughter, for murderers of victims that had not yet reached more than the age of one to two days. It is intriguing to consider the reasons given in arguments for leniency toward women who kill their children: Hormonal imbalance due to breast feeding; Failure to recover from the effects of giving birth to "such children".

Patricia Pearson says this:

In England, support for hormones as the cause of all maternal aggression against infants is enshrined in the law. In 1922, parliament introduced the Infanticide Act, which reduced the crime automatically from murder to manslaughter on the basis of insanity if a mother "had not fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to such child, but by reason thereof the balance of her mind was then disturbed." The point of the Infanticide Act was not that British doctors had suddenly discovered a link between postpartum hormones and violent behavior. To this day that link hasn't been categorically established. The point was to rid the courts of the necessity of imposing murder sentences, since juries had been refusing to convict women when the penalty was execution. For instance, following five thousand coroner's inquests into child deaths held annually in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, only thirty-nine convictions for child murder resulted, and none of those women were executed.  Similarly, in Canada, when a mandatory death penalty applied to the murder of children, "courts regularly returned 'not guilty' verdicts in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary." [p. 80]
It appears that at about the same time as women were given the right to vote, they were also given the benefit of being not accountable for their actions by reason of insanity due to hormonal imbalance.

That was just a first step. The age of the children who became victims of child murder within the definition of "infanticide" was extended to one year, from the previously "acceptable" one to two days. Patricia Pearson says:

In 1938, Britain revised its infanticide statute, extending the age of victims from "newly born" to "under the age of 12 months." To justify this extension, the revised statute cited "the effect of lactation" on a woman's mind.  It was decided, in effect, that breastfeeding could drive women mad.  The experts who proposed the revision to the courts privately believed that social and psychological factors were more critical than biology.  Studies consistently show, for example, that preexisting histories of depression and life stress are a common denominator in women with postpartum mental disorders.  But psychiatrist J. H. Morton defended the diagnosis of "lactational insanity" as being acceptable to conservative judges and barristers.  It was never proposed that the Infanticide Act forgive mothers for killing older children, spouses or others, even while said to be suffering from the same insanity. [p. 80]
Yet, that is exactly what is increasingly and routinely happening today.  Mothers are considered inculpable – fathers not – when they murder their children. In the Latimer case in Saskatchewan, which is currently awaiting sentencing after appeals, the father who killed his daughter who was severely afflicted by cerebral palsy faces a minimum sentence of 10 years. The mother in Montreal, who killed her 6 -year-old son, similarly – although less severely – afflicted with autism (he was able to attend school), by drowning him in a bathtub, received a suspended sentence of two years, less one day, with mandatory psychological counselling for a while. (see comparison of the two cases)

On December 20th, 1985, Marybeth Tinning in Schenectady, New York, murdered the last of her nine children, a four-week-old baby girl Tami Lynn. The others, aged from a few weeks to five years, were killed by her over the preceding 14 years. The cause of all deaths had been diagnosed as SIDS. The community members had began to wonder after the sixth child died. Not until the ninth death happened were charges laid. I don't know what the sentence was in her case, but it appears that Marybeth Tinnings was imprisoned. The point here is not whether a murderer should or should not have been sentenced. The point is that nine children died because society felt that their mother, a well-respected woman who received much sympathy for her "losses," was an angel.  The murders of at least eight children could have been prevented in her case, if, after the first murder had been committed, the mother would have been suspected of perpetrating it.  However, eight more children were murdered by this "mother" before she did come under suspicion.  Unfortunately, that's something that happens very often.

Here are a few more excerpts from When She Was Bad:

In recent years, academics have tried to uncover MSBP rates by tracking cases of confirmed abuse or death in children and then researching the fates of their sisters and brothers. Dr. Roy Meadow, a professor of pediatrics at St. James University Hospital, Leeds, England, who coined the phrase Munchausen syndrome by proxy, reported in 1990 that of twenty-seven children who had been suffocated by their mothers, he'd found eighteen siblings who had died "suddenly and unexpectedly in early life." Three similar studies found high rates of unexplained sibling demise. Chicago, which has one of the highest unexpected infant death rates in the world, was the subject of a 1985 study by the Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.  Twenty-two percent of the crib deaths recorded in a two-year period, the committee found, "were related to suspected child abuse and neglect." Though not all of the suspicious Chicago cases were the result of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the data reveal how easy it is to harm children, and particularly babies, without falling 'Under suspicion.
According to Dr. John Emery, testifying at Marybeth Tinning's trial, the term sudden infant death syndrome was coined at the turn of the century in the state of Washington. "As deaths due to what you might call classic disease such as pneumonia disappeared," Emery explained, "relatively larger numbers of children died unexpectedly ... at home instead of at hospital." Without any obvious or medically understood cause of death, parents became suspects in neglect, either for "sleeping on top of them, or being drunk or disorderly." A group of Seattle doctors "said let us, as it were, invent a term which could be used to describe babies that are found unexpectedly dead, and we will say that this is a natural cause of death so these parents shall not be harassed. Eventually they called it sudden infant death syndrome, and this had a very fine effect." [my emphasis — WHS]
As with postpartum psychosis, SIDS is not always the wrong conclusion to draw, insofar as there quite clearly are breathing and metabolic disorders in some infants that cause sudden death. In some cases, the problem may be a subtle neurological malformation affecting respiratory control; in others, a respiratory infection. Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of SIDS. So does premature birth. Babies are also vulnerable to suffocation when lying face down on bunched bed clothes, because they don't have the strength to lift their faces. The peak risk age is between two and four months, with 90 percent of SIDS deaths taking place before six months. Natural infant deaths are not a fiction. SIDS itself is not necessarily a misnomer. The problem is that it's become a catch-all explanation, used when autopsies show no clear cause of death. Coroners tend to apply the label indiscriminately. In 1995, two babies in the Boston area who suffocated in battery-operated cradles were listed as SIDS cases without death scene investigations. Another eight babies died before any connection was made to the design of the cradle.
Death by smothering is virtually indistinguishable from SIDS at autopsy. If medical examiners don't seek out clues at the death scene, as they do for all suspicious adult deaths, then it's not difficult to see how infanticides by smothering are overlooked. Police investigators and academics guess that 10 to 20 percent of the six thousand to eight thousand SIDS cases reported each year in the United States conceal accidental or deliberate suffocation. "I remember handling all the deaths, and you'd get a lot of crib deaths," recalls detective Leroy Orozco. "We had one where one gal's baby died, then several months later, another one. We thought, this gal could suffocate her kids and we'd never know it." [pp. 107-109]
 Update 2003 05 23

Infanticide — "SIDS" in Australia; four children killed in one family

Proving that women who kill no more than one of their infants get away with murder, Kathleen Folbigg raised the suspicion of the authorities only after she had killed her fourth child of her four children she had killed, a 19-month-old baby girl.
   Mind, you, if her husband would not have found her diary, she would have gotten away with murdering that child, too. (Full Story)

Are we now becoming more "civilized and humane," and will our children be allowed to be less at risk of losing their lives, and instead permitted to grow up?  Judge for yourself. Here is what one expert says:

"This was found on 3 Nov. 1997 in the [Usenet] discussion group <alt.dads-rights.unmoderated>:

According to Steven Pinker's articles in today's New York Times Magazine, the tendency for some young women to kill one-day-old infants (neonaticide) may be built into "the biological design of our parental emotions."

Neolithic women might have decided to cut their losses early on and let sickly infants, or those not promising to make it to adulthood, die rather than waste their time raising it. Such women mentally dealt with the decision as an unavoidable tragedy, but one necessary at the time.

After a lengthy discussion of the topic the author concludes with the inference that society will become more merciful to those teenagers who dump their kids in garbage cans once society understands why "the anguished girls" felt they had no choice but to do what they did.

Jack Garbuz <JGARBUZ@worldnet.att.net>

The following links to a detailed and disturbing discussion from the Wash Post of Nov. 6 [1998] in which Pinker's "infanticide" is given a much more cold-blooded meaning than the usual "excuse the mother because of post-natal depression, hormones etc.". It significantly extends abortion to include the new-born whose continued life will depend solely on a "rational" decision by the mother.


[That link is now dead, but copies of the article "Why They Kill Their Newborns", originally published November 2, 1997 New York Times Magazine, can still be accessed on the Net.
   Robert L. Morrison provides an excellent discussion of the circumstances and consequences of Steven Pinkers proposition. —WHS]


Update 2003 07 12


Peter Singer, a promoter of infanticide and a professor of bioethics at Princeton University has been given the 2003 World Technology Award for Ethics by the World Technology Network.


Can a similar award for Steven Pinker be far behind?

How much longer until mothers who kill their children receive not sentences but medals?

See also:

1999 10 12
2000 05 09 (to install search engine)
2001 02 04 (format changes)
2003 05 23 (added reference to "SIDS" murders in Australia)
2003 07 12 (added reference to bioethics award for Peter Singer)
2013 03 08 (removed reference to dvstats.org -- website no longer functions)