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For infanticide among other animals, see Infanticide (zoology).

Infanticide is the practice of someone intentionally causing the death of an infant. Often it is the mother who commits the act, but criminology recognises various forms of non-maternal child murder. In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible, whereas in most modern societies the practice is considered immoral and criminal. Nonetheless, it still takes place — in the Western world usually because of the parent's mental illness or violent behavior, and in some poor countries as a form of population control, sometimes with tacit societal acceptance. Female infanticide is more common than the killing of male babies.

In the UK, the Infanticide Act defines infanticide as a specific crime that can only be committed by the mother during the first twelve months of her baby's life. This article deals with the broader notion of infanticide explained above.

Infanticide throughout history

The practice of infanticide has taken many forms. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as that allegedly practiced in ancient Carthage, is one form; however, many societies only practiced simple infanticide and regarded child sacrifice as morally repugnant. Critics have argued that child sacrifice was simply infanticide disguised and both driven by the same socio-economic considerations.[1]

In Classical times

Judaism prohibits infanticide; Josephus wrote, "The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus." The ancient Germanic tribes enforced a similar prohibition. Roman historian Tacitus found such mores remarkable and commented on both in nearly identical language: .. .quemquam ex agnatis necare flagitium habetur.. ., "[The Germani] hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child" (Germania),[2] and ...nam et necare quemquam ex agnatis nefas... putant, "[The Jews] think it criminal to kill any unwanted child" (Histories)[3]).

A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 BC, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:

"Know that I am still in Alexandria. [...] I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it." – Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule.[4].

In some periods of Roman history it was traditional in practice for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to death by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. Although infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in AD 374, offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted. A practice described in Roman texts was to smear the breast with opium residue so that a nursing baby would die with no outward cause.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


Christianity rejected infanticide. The Didache said "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born." So widely accepted was this teaching that Justin Martyr defended not abandoning children, "lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers":

"But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution."[5]

Arabia and Islam

There is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic society or medieval Arabia, except for the case of the Tamim tribe who practiced it during severe famine.[6] Infantcide is explicitly prohibited by the Qur'an.[7]


One frequent method of infanticide in antiquity was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to die by exposure. In practice and in legend, someone often found the child and raised it for their own purposes, either benignly, as with Romulus and Remus, or more commonly for slavery and prostitution.[5]

On the island of Tikopia, infanticide was carried out by suffocating the infant. [8]

Present day

The practice has become less common in the Western world, but continues today in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India.[9]. Female infants, then and even now, are particularly vulnerable, a factor in gendercide.

Joseph Fletcher, founder of situational ethics and a euthanasia proponent, proposed that infanticide be permitted in cases of severe birth defects. He suggested that it is a logical and acceptable extension of abortion.

Killing Her Baby in Gulag, drawing by Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya

Explanations for the practice


Many historians believe the reason to be primarily economic, with more children born than the family is prepared to support. In societies that are patrilineal and patrilocal, the family may choose to allow more sons to live and kill some daughters, as the former will support their birth family until they die, whereas the latter will leave economically and geographically to join their husband's family, possibly only after the payment of a burdensome dowry price. Thus the decision to bring up a boy is more economically rewarding to the parents.[How to reference and link to summary or text] However, this does not explain why infanticide would occur equally among rich and poor, nor why it would be as frequent during decadent periods of the Roman Empire as during earlier, more affluent, periods.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In times of famine or cases of extreme poverty or other desperate circumstances, parents may have to choose which of their children will live and which will die. (See Sophie's Choice.)

Population control

Some anthropologists have suggested other causes for infanticide in non-state and non-industrialized societies. Janet Siskind has argued that female infanticide may be a form of population control in Amazonian societies.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Population control is achieved not only by limiting the number of potential mothers; increased fighting among men for access to relatively scarce wives would also lead to a decline in population. Although additional research by Marvin Harris and William Divale supports this argument, it has been criticized as an example of environmental determinism.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Tikopia, an isolated South Pacific island, used to practice infanticide to keep a stable population in line with its resource base. [10]

Customs and taboos

In 1888, Elton reported that beach people on the island of Ugi in the Solomon Islands kill their infants at birth by burying them, and women were also said to practice abortion. They reported that it was too much trouble to raise a child, and instead preferred to buy one from the bush people.[11]

Other anthropologists have suggested a variety of largely culture-specific reasons for infanticide. In cultures where different value is placed on male and female children, sex-selective infanticide may be practiced simply to increase the proportion of children of the preferred sex, usually male. (This is linked to the economic reasons above.) In cultures where childbearing is strongly tied to social structures, infants born outside of those structures (illegitimate children, children of incest, children of cross-caste relationships, and so forth) may be killed by family members to conceal or atone for the violation of taboo.


A minority of academics subscribe to an alternate school of thought reconsidering the practice as early infanticidal childrearing.[How to reference and link to summary or text] They attribute it, both modern and historical, to psychological inability to raise children.

Contemporary data suggests that modern infanticide is usually brought about by a combination of postpartum depression and a psychological unreadiness to raise children.[How to reference and link to summary or text] It could also be exacerbated by schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It is also attributed, in some cases, to the desire of unwed, underage parents to conceal their sexual relations and/or avoid the responsibility of childrearing.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Wider effects

In addition to debates over the morality of infanticide itself, there is some debate over the effects of infanticide on surviving children, and the effects of childrearing in societies that also sanction infanticide. Some argue that the practice of infanticide in any widespread form causes enormous psychological damage in children.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Some anthropologists studying societies that practice infanticide, however, have reported how loving the parents were to their children.[How to reference and link to summary or text] (Harris and Divale's work on the relationship between female infanticide and warfare suggests that there are, however, extensive negative effects).

Sex selection

In the absence of sex-selective abortion, sex-selective infanticide can be deduced from very skewed birth statistics. The biologically normal sex ratio for humans is approximately 105 males per 100 females, and the life expectancy of females is slightly greater than males on average.[How to reference and link to summary or text] When a society has an infant male to female ratio which is significantly higher than the biological norm, sex selection can usually be inferred. However, new research has led to alternate explanations to this theory.

100 million missing women

The idea of there being "100 million missing women", largely in Asia, originated with or was popularised by an influential 1990 essay by Amartya Sen. [12] This gender gap may indeed be partly explained by female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. However, recent statistical evidence gathered by Emily Oster suggests that outbreaks of hepatitis B, which causes female fetuses to miscarry at a higher rate than male fetuses, may account for a large proportion, perhaps up to half, of the "missing" women.[13].

By country

Infant euthanasia in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, euthanasia remains technically illegal for patients under the age of 12. However, Dr. Eduard Verhagen has documented several cases of infant euthanasia. Together with colleagues and prosecutors, he has developed a protocol to be followed in those cases. Prosecutors will refrain from pressing charges if this Groningen protocol is followed.[14][15]

Infant euthanasia in the UK

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology (RCOG) has recently recommended to "Allow Active Euthanasia for Disabled Babies, Doctors Urge" [16] that physicians should be allowed to make “deliberate interventions to kill infants” who are disabled. It has been argued that killing disabled babies will save millions of pounds that otherwise would be required to care for them.

The situation in China

There have been some accusations that infanticide occurs in the People's Republic of China due to the one-child policy although most demographers do not believe that the practice is widespread. In the 1990s, a certain stretch of the Yangtze River was known to be a common site of infanticide by drowning, until government projects made access to it more difficult. Others assert that China has twenty-five million fewer girl children than expected, but sex selective abortion can partially be to blame. The illegal use of ultrasound is widespread in China, and itinerant sonographers with plain vans in parking lots offer inexpensive sonographs to determine the sex of a fetus.

In other animals

Infanticide occurs throughout nature, such as in Hanuman Langurs.

Main article: Infanticide (zoology)

Although human infanticide has been widely studied, the practice has been observed in many other species throughout the animal kingdom since it was first seriously treated by Sugiyama.[17] These include microscopic rotifers, insects, fish, amphibians, birds and mammals.[18] Infanticide can be practiced by both males and females.

Infanticide based on sexual competition has the general theme of the killer (often male) becoming the new sexual partner of the victim's parent which would otherwise be unavailable to it. This represents a gain in fitness by the killer, and a loss in fitness by the parent of the offspring killed. This is a form of sexual conflict and is a type of evolutionary struggle between the two sexes, in which the victim sex may have its own counter-adaptations which reduce the success of this practice. It may also occur due to non-sexual competition, such as the struggle for food between females. In this case individuals may even kill closely related offspring.

Filial infanticide occurs when a parent kills its own offspring. This often involves consumption of the young themselves, which is termed filial cannibalism. The behavior is widespread in fishes, and is seen in many terrestrial animals as well, including pigs, where it can be costly to farmers. Unlike humans, most other animals are not seen to practice sex-selective infanticide.

See also


  1. "Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?", Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1984.[1]
  2. 19
  3. 5.5
  4. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 744, translated in Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 54.[2]
  5. 5.0 5.1 "But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution." "lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers" First Apology, Justin Martyr
  6. H. Lammens, Islam. Belief and Institutions (London, 1929/1987), pg. 21.
  7. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, p.138
  8. Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. ISBN 0-14-303655-6.
  10. Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. ISBN 0-14-303655-6. He devotes a chapter to this aspect of Tikopia
  11. Elton, F. (1888) Notes on Natives of the Solomon Islands The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 17:90-99.
  12. Amartya Sen New York Review of Books Volume 37, Number 20 · December 20, 1990 "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing"
  13. "The Search for 100 Million Missing Women: An economics detective story." A Slate article by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, reporting the work of Emily Oster, "Hepatitis B and the Case of the Missing Women", Journal of Political Economy, 113(6): p. 1163-1216 (December 2005)
  14. Verhagen, Eduard; Sauer, Pieter J.J. (March 10, 2005), "The Groningen Protocol — Euthanasia in Severely Ill Newborns", The New England Journal of Medicine 352 (10): 959-962,, retrieved on 2007-05-22 
  15. Outrage from Churches over Euthanasia on Newborns, December 1, 2004,, retrieved on 2007-05-22 
  16. Elliott, Francis (November 5, 2006), "Allow 'active euthanasia' for disabled babies, doctors urge", The Independent,, retrieved on 2007-05-22 
  17. Sugiyama, Y. (1965) On the social change of Hanuman langurs (Presbytis entellus) in their natural conditions. Primates 6:381-417.
  18. Hoogland, J. L. (1985) Infanticide in Prairie Dogs: Lactating Females Kill Offspring of Close Kin Science 230:1037-1040.

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