Infanticide Essay

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Infanticide refers to the killing of an infant, typically up to 1 year of age, though some sources classify as infanticides the killings of children up to 2 or 5 years of age. Both men and women commit infanticides, which differ in many ways from the killings of older children and adults. Infanticides include neonaticides, in which a newborn is killed on the day of his or her birth, and some filicides (i.e., the killing of a child by a parent). Though relatively uncommon, infanticide is an important form of interpersonal violence.

Infanticide in History

Historically, newborns and infants were killed because the societies into which they were born felt it was an acceptable way to deal with unwanted children or those who threatened the survival of the larger family unit, band, or tribe. Infants who were perceived as unhealthy were more likely than their sound counterparts to be slain immediately or shortly after their births in order to devote scarce resources to ensure the survival of the social group. In some societies, female infants were often slaughtered, a trend that has continued into the modern era. Other children met their untimely ends when they were sacrificed to the gods, when their paternity was uncertain or undesirable, or when their parents simply did not want the burden of another child. Historically, infanticide was a common response to the stresses of rearing children.

Due to the dangerous environments in which they were raised, some children in history were killed through what would now be considered neglect or lack of supervision by their caregivers. Overlaying of infants by mothers (or others) who rolled over onto and suffocated their infants while sleeping, for example, was so common that laws were passed to outlaw the practice of adults sharing their beds with youngsters. Infants were scalded or burned to death when their parents were absent or were unintentionally killed during quarrels between the adults in their homes so frequently that the incidents were not considered especially newsworthy.

In days of old, superstition and beliefs in the paranormal played a unique role in the abuse and ultimate deaths of defective or unusual children. A child whose appearance was strange (e.g., due to deformity or disability) or whose behavior displeased his or her parents (e.g., crying too much) was sometimes labeled a changeling (i.e., a fairy child who had been switched at birth with a human infant). Popular belief held that only through continual abuse of a changeling could human parents hope that the fairies would come to rescue their own child and return the human one to its rightful family. No fairy ever returned a stolen child, of course, meaning that the so-called changelings were literally abused to death through beatings, burning, and other forms of torment. Similarly, in some tribal societies, infants believed to be witches were violently destroyed.

Contemporary Infanticides

The motivations behind and methods of contemporary infanticides differ greatly from those of the past. Especially in the United States, killings motivated by necessity are very rare and superstition plays a minuscule role in the deaths of modern infants. Overlayings are now so unusual that many individuals have never even heard of the phenomenon.

Infanticides are far less common now than in the past. In Victorian England, infanticides were the most common form of killing and the crime was routinely committed in other European nations, in the United States, and around the world. Recent estimates from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, on the other hand, show that between 175 and 225 children under the age of 1 year are killed each year in the United States. This means that around 1% of killings in this country are infanticides. This rate may be misleading, however, given the difficulty in ascertaining the cause of death in some cases. The risk of a child being the victim of a homicide drops dramatically for school-age children and remains low until the teen years.

Types of and Motivations Behind Infanticides

Infanticides are committed by both men and women and the crime typically involves a victim who is in the real or temporary care of the killer. Infanticide women seem to eschew weapons and tend to suffocate or drown their victims, while men tend to strangle or use weapons against their victims (e.g., stabbing or bludgeoning). Though routinely used in the killings of older children, especially teenagers, firearms are rarely involved in infanticides. Those who kill infants are often young, typically in their teens or early twenties. The vast majority of infanticides are committed by parents, stepparents (including parents’ paramours), or other family members. Infanticide is one of the few violent offenses that is not dominated by male offenders; when women kill, they tend to kill intimates and children.

Infants are more likely than older children and adults to be beaten to death and to be killed in their own homes, which is sometimes attributed to their inability to escape from abusive situations by running away or seeking help from outsiders. Deaths due to head injuries are quite common among infants, occurring at a far higher rate than among older children or adults. The proportion of deaths due to neglect, of course, declines rapidly with age of the victim—while the majority of neonaticides are due to exposure or neglect, very few deaths of older children can be attributed to neglect. Victims of infanticides are more likely than older homicide victims to be White.

Unlike the killing of older children and adults, infanticides tend to be the unintended consequences of abuse or neglect or of unrestrained discipline that goes too far. Some research has linked infanticide to overly aggressive attempts by parents to quiet crying children or to correct children who have soiled themselves. A sizable proportion of infanticides involve killers with a history of mental illness and/or who suffer from postpartum psychopathology.

Infanticide Typologies

Several scholars have posited typologies of those who commit infanticide. Despite minor variations between the models, most acknowledge that infanticides result from (a) mistreatment of unwanted children; (b) overzealous discipline or abuse directed against otherwise wanted children; (c) emotional responses by adults such as retaliation, revenge, or jealousy; or (d) mental illness, including postpartum psychopathology.

Some infanticides are termed altruistic because the killer, often suffering from mental illness, believes he or she is helping the victim avoid some greater imagined terror, such as being seized by the devil or suffering from some nonexistent malady or disease; a sizable proportion of altruistic infanticides are followed by suicide attempts by the killer. Though postpartum depression and psychosis in perpetrators of infanticides are relatively rare, their role in infanticides is the subject of a great deal of discussion and research.

Neonaticides differ from other infanticides in that they usually follow denied or concealed pregnancies and typically are committed by females who are afraid to tell the adults in their lives about an unwanted pregnancy. Males, even the fathers of the infants, are seldom involved in neonaticides. Many neonaticides occur during the process of hiding or disposing of a live-born infant to prevent discovery of the pregnancy and birth by parents or others. Due to the unique phenomenon of neonaticide, the first day of an infant’s life is considered the most dangerous in terms of risk of being a homicide victim.

Prevention of Infanticide

In order to prevent infanticide, society must address each of the many causes of infant death. Some scholars have advocated for better monitoring of those who are pregnant and new mothers for signs of postpartum psychopathology, combined with educational campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of the devastating condition. Support programs aimed at helping families cope with the stresses of parenting have certainly reduced the number of abuse-related infanticides. The ability of medical and social service professionals to detect the abuse of unwanted children can also reduce the number of fatalities. Neonaticides may be prevented by a variety of programs aimed at reducing the stigma of unwanted pregnancies and creating situations conducive to disclosure of such pregnancies. Unfortunately, there is no single solution to the problem of infanticide.


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  4. Mann, C. R. (1996). When women kill. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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  7. Pitt, S., & Bale, E. (1995). Neonaticide, infanticide, and filicide: A review of the literature. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 23, 375–386.

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