1902 Encyclopedia > Infanticide


INFANTICIDE. The history of infanticide as an archaic institution has already been referred to in the article FOUNDLING HOSPITALS (vol. ix. p. 481). Children of both sexes were sacrificed as religious offerings. Indeed, in some cases, e.g., in expiations for sacrilege, the boy, as being the nobler child, was preferred. But what may be called the normal infanticide of early society was probably confined to girls. The custom is in certain places and for certain periods explained by the system of exogamy; but much more generally, as in China at the present day, it is simply an illustration of what Malthus would call a "positive check," the reckless propagation of children far outrunning the means of subsistence which the energy of the parents can provide. Infanticide still survives among many savage races; and, where the necessity for strong warriors is felt, a selection is sometimes made of the weaker children for destruction. But this political element seldom enters into the custom. It is because girls cannot provide for themselves that they are killed.

More complex were the leading forms of infanticide in India, now suppressed by the wise action of the British Government. The practice, though forbidden by both the Vedas and the Koran, prevailed among the Rájputs and certain of the aboriginal tribes. Among the aristocratic Rájputs, for example, 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 obviously most powerful with the highest castes, in which, accordingly, the disproportion of the sexes was painfully apparent. But, assuming marriage to be possible, it is ruinously expensive to the bride’s father. He has to make gifts of money, clothes, jewels, and sweetmeats to the bride-groom’s relatives; and when the marriage ceremony comes, he has, chiefly owing to the exactions of the Bráhmans and Bhats or minstrels, to face a lavish expenditure on feasts which in the case of some rájás has been known to reach more than £100,000. To avoid all this, the Rájput killed a certain proportion of his daughters,—sometimes in a very singular way. A pill of tobacco and bhang might be given to the newborn child to swallow; or it was drowned in milk; or the mother’s breast was smeared with opium or the juice of the poisonous Datura. A common form 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 Kandhs, 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. The 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 present century. One of its chief events, representing many minor events, was the Umritsur durbar of 1853, which was arranged by the late Lord Lawrence. At that great 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 Rájput clans keep their female offspring suspiciously close to the lowest average which secures them from surveillance.

The modern crime of infanticide shows no symptom of diminution in the leading nations of Europe. In all of them it is closely connected with illegitimacy in the class of farm and domestic servants. The crime is generally committed by the mother for the purpose of completing the concealment of her shame, and in other cases, where shame has not survived, in order to escape the burden of her child’s support. The paramour sometimes aids in the crime, which is not confined to unmarried mothers. The ease with which affiliation orders are obtained in Great Britain must save the lives of many children. In France, where the inquiry into paternity is forbidden, a controversy still goes on as to the influence of hospitals for "assisted children," which are said to save life at the expense of morality. It seems certain that the great administrative change involved in closing the "tour" at these hospitals has not perceptibly affected infanticide in France. 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 of unusually difficult proof.

In the law of England, the inexcusable killing of infants is theoretically murder. The infant must of course 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. There now is a presumption, said to be based on considerations of humanity, that every newborn child found dead is born dead until the contrary is very clearly shown. 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 has probably by this time reached 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.

It is a statutory offence, under 24 & 25 Vict. c. 100, to administer poison or any noxious thing to a woman with child with intent to procure her miscarriage, or to use any instrument for the same purpose, the maximum punishment being penal servitude for life. The previous law had drawn the distinction of "quick with child," and in such cases had punished capitally. It was a very old controversy among the philosophers and physicians of antiquity, when the foetus ceased to be pars viscerum matris and became "vital," or, as it was afterwards called, "animate." The law has not yet succeeded in putting down the degraded and wicked trade in abortion. There can be no doubt from the French and American treatises of Gallard and Storer that the crime prevails extensively, and even in classes of society in which infanticide proper would not be thought of without a shudder.

Under the same statute it is a misdemeanour punishable by two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, as a maximum, to endeavour to conceal the birth of a child by any secret disposition of its dead body, whether the child died before, after, or at its birth. This does not apply to very premature births, where it was impossible that the foetus should be alive. But it does apply to all those numerous cases where the child’s body, without being actually hidden, is placed where it is not likely to be found except by accident, or upon search. Lastly, under the same statute it is a misdemeanour punishable by five years’ penal servitude, as a maximum, to abandon or expose a child under the age of two years, so as to endanger its life, or to inflict permanent injury, actual or probable, upon its health.

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 mere purpose of obtaining the burial money from a benefit club.1 In 1871 the House of Commons found it necessary to appoint a select committee "to inquire as to the best means of preventing the destruction of the lives of infants put out to nurse for hire by their parents." The trials of

Margaret Waters and Mary Hall called attention to the infamous relations between the lying-in houses and the baby-farming houses of London. The form was gone through of paying a ridiculously insufficient sum for the maintenance of the child. "Improper and insufficient food," said the committee, "opiates, drugs, crowded rooms, bad air, want of cleanliness, and wilful neglect are sure to be followed in a few months by diarrhoea, convulsions, and wasting away." These unfortunate children were nearly all illegitimate, and the mere fact of their being hand-nursed, and not breast-nursed, goes some way (according to the experience of the Foundling Hospital and the Magdalene Home) to explain the great mortality among them. Such children, when nursed by their mothers in the workhouse, generally live. The practical result of the committee of 1871 was the Act of 1872, 35 & 36 Vict. c. 38, which provides for the compulsory registration of all houses in which more than one child under the age of one year are received for a longer period than twenty-four hours. No licence is granted by the justices of the peace, unless the house is suitable for the purpose, and its owner a person of good character and able to maintain the children. Offences against the Act, including wilful neglect of the children even in a suitable house, are punishable by a fine of £5 or six months’ imprisonment with or without hard labour.

The law of Scotland also treats the unlawful killing of completely born infants as murder. In such cases a verdict of culpable homicide is usually returned, the punishment being entirely in the discretion of the court. Still more commonly the charge of concealment of pregnancy is made under the Act 49 Geo. III. c. 14, the maximum punishment being two years’ imprisonment. It must be shown that the woman concealed her condition during the whole period of pregnancy, and did not call for help at the birth. Unlawfully procuring abortion, whether by drugs or instruments, is also a crime known to the common law of Scotland, the punishment being penal servitude or imprisonment according to circumstances. In a variety of cases, which do not admit of general statement, convictions have also been obtained against parents of exposing and deserting children or placing them in danger, and of cruel and unnatural treatment and neglect.

Infanticide will have to be further considered under the heading MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE. For that branch of the subject the works of Tardieu and Taylor are the most important and recent authorities. See also White head On Abortion and Sterility, and the works of Gallard and Storer already referred to.

Bibliography.—Besides a very large number of theses and special dissertations, and the chapters on the subject in the leading works in medical jurisprudence, the following are the most important works on infanticide. Ploucquet, Commentarius Medicus in processus criminales super homicidio, infanficidio, &c., 1736; W. Hunter, Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder in Bastard Children; Olivard, De l’'infanticide et des moyens que l’on employe, pour le constater, Paris, 1802 ; Mahon, An Essay on the Signs of Murder in New-Born Children, translated by Johnson, Lancaster, 1813; Arrowsmith, Medico-legal Essay on Infanticide, Edin., 1828; Cummin, Proofs of Infanticide Considered, London, 1836 : Ryan, Child Murder in its Sanitary and Social Bearings, 1858, and Infanticide, its Law, Prevalence, Prevention, and History, London, 1862; Kunze, Der Kindermord, historisch u. kritisch dargestellt, Leipsic, 1860 ; Greaves, Observations on some of the causes of Infanticide, Manchester, 1863, and Observations on the Laws referring to Child Murder and Criminal Abortion, Manchester, 1864 ; Storer and Heard, Criminal Abortion, its Nature, Evidence, and Law, Boston, 1868 ; Tardieu, Étude méd.-lég. et clinique sur l’avortement, Paris, 1864, and Étude méd.-lég. sur l’infanticide, Paris, 1880; Toulmouche, Études sur l’infanticide et la grossesse cachée ou simulée Paris, 1875 ; Gallard, De l’avortement au point de vue med-leg., Paris, 1878. There are several works describing Indian infanticide. The best known is Infanticide, its Origin, Progress, and Suppression, London, 1857, by J. Cave Browne. See also the works of Moore, Cormack, and Wilson. (W. C. S.)


FOOTNOTE (page 4)

1 See Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes, "Supplementary Report on Interment in Towns," by Edwin Chadwick (Parl. Pavers, 1843, xii. 395); and The Social Condition and Education of the People, by Joseph Kay, 1850.

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