Infanticide: an Inhuman Behavior

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?

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.

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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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