A Brief History of Infanticide in Different Cultures and Time Periods

From prehistory to modern society, abandonment leading to death by exposure has been the most common method of infanticide. Newborns are the most susceptible to infanticide and were (and still are) usually smothered right after birth or abandoned. As noted previously, in many cultures infanticide tends to demonstrate favoring of one sex. For example, among Neolithic groups between fifteen and fifty percent of births resulted in infanticide. The wide variation in percentages is explained by the difficulties in determining whether children were victims of infanticide or had died of natural deaths (discussed further in Chapter 2).14 Divale, however, found that in eighty-six hunter-gather societies where infanticide was practiced there was a gender ratio of 1.38 to 1, in favor of males, whereas in societies where it was not practiced the ratio was 1 to 1.15 One explanation for this disparity is that some burial practices may have been reserved for specific genders of infants. Further, while female infanticide was more widely practiced, there have been episodes of male infanticide recorded in history. The Rendille in Kenya, for example, kill baby boys in order to limit the amount of potential male cattle owners; cattle being an essential resource. In Israel one hundred newborns were found in a Roman sewer under a bath house. Of those who had testable DNA, fourteen males and five females were identified. This was unusual in that infants were usually carefully buried at the time. Simon Mays hypothesizes that females may have been bred for prostitution by their prostitute mothers, which may have generated male infanticide.16

In ancient societies attempts to prevent infanticide were sometimes addressed with legislation. The Twelve Tables of Roman law stated that it was the duty of the patriarch of the family to decide whether newborns should be raised or destroyed, particularly if the child were visibly deformed. Ultimately, the adoption of Christianity in Rome caused the practice to abate as The Council of Constantinople declared infanticide illegal. Despite these laws it was not uncommon for baby girls to be exposed.17

Less infanticide was recorded during the Middles Ages, although it still occurred at staggering rates. Overlaying while nursing was a frequent cause of death among infants. The suspiciously high mortality rate indicates that overlaying may have been purposeful, whether by mother or wet nurse. As noted in Chapter 5, floods of children were abandoned in the Middle Ages. Wishful mothers, assuming their child to be a changeling, abandoned unwanted or sickly children, returning later in hopes that the child was reverted to health. When foundling homes were established to address the rash of infanticide and abandonment, children brought to these homes had between an eighty and one hundred percent chance of dying.

The Koran prohibits infanticide, although prior to the adoption of Islam in Arabian societies, the practice was used as a method of birth control called wa’d. It was practiced in cases of poverty, as a sacrifice, or upon the birth of a girl—who might have been buried alive if the father felt her death was warranted.18 Sometimes a passive form of exsanguination, by not tying the umbilical cord, might have been used to kill an unwanted newborn female. In a dramatic show of desperation, a father might hold his infant daughter in one hand, and with a knife in the other, threaten to kill her unless some man took her for his wife.19

In early medieval China, Marco Polo noted that the Chinese exposed their children and, much like in current times, often killed females. When female babies were born they might be put into a bucket of cold water that stood waiting at the place birth, just in case. In the late 1800s, however, Chinese emperors began to issue warnings and make concerted efforts to end infanticide of girls. Orphanages were established in order to address the needs of families. In present day China, the One Child policy has contributed to abandonment, gender-selected abortion, and infanticide—all illegal. Children who ultimately end up in orphanages have a very high chance of dying. Children who are disabled in particular are often neglected. The documentary “The Dying Room” illustrates the unjust manner in which these children live and die. Infanticide in ancient China is discussed extensively in Chapter 3.

The samurai of the Tokugawa period (1615 to 1860) did not marry until age thirty, and found it unacceptable to have more than three children. Abortion was frequent if families became too large, or if the birth of daughters was too frequent. In Feudal Japan victims of infanticide were smothered when wet paper was placed on the baby’s mouth and nose. The Japanese called infanticide mabiki (weeding an overcrowded garden), which occurred until the early twentieth century.20 During the famine of 1783 cannibalism was prevalent. Those who died were eaten immediately by survivors. Those who perished from starvation, however, decayed too quickly to be consumed. In one village, for example, a man who already lost his wife and one child asked a neighbor to kill his remaining son with a sword so that he may be eaten before dying of starvation, in exchange for sharing the “meat”. The father then turned the sword on the neighbor to avenge the death of his son and have double the quantity of meat.21

In South Asia infanticide of females was also common, especially those who were illegitimate. They were offered up as wives to anyone who might take them upon birth or immediately killed with a knife. In present day rural India the practice continues, although it is illegal.22 Further, due to the rise in poverty, in Pakistan newborn babies are increasingly abandoned. In the year 2010 alone, 1,210 babies were found dead and inappropriately discarded.23

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