Tuesday, 2 December 2008


“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” - William Makepeace Thackeray

I have been distressed these past few weeks by news items that I hear from all over the world that seem to have a common theme: Infanticide. It seems that there is an epidemic out there of babies being killed, most often by their mothers, soon after they are born. Is it a sign of the times, I wonder, these new Medeas appearing all over the world confirming the wholesale madness that is gripping humanity?

One of the stories I read concerned tribal women in Papua New Guinea who used infanticide as a way out of endless internecine feuds. They kill their male babies and thus reduce the number of warring males in the next generation. Male infanticide on a mass scale was the obvious way for these women to cope with the bloodbath they were immersed in. All the women folk had agreed to have newborn babies killed because they have had enough of men engaging in tribal conflicts and bringing misery to them.

Heinous though this may seem, there is a reason to the infanticide: Violence to end violence. A sacrifice to peace, gruesome though it is. Desperation will drive people to the edge of reason. If surviving was almost impossible and getting food was hard, as husbands kept fighting and mothers and children were left to fend for themselves, what else could the womenfolk do to stop the warring tribes? Male infanticide reduces the cyclical pay back violence infamous in Highlands tribal fights.

Last year the “baby in the freezer” occurence in Pittsburgh rocked America. A 22 year-old woman put her newborn baby in a plastic bag and then a brown bag and froze it in a beer box in her freezer. According to a police affidavit, the mother Christine Hutchinson told police she gave birth to the girl on April 22 2007 and did not call medics or police, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

In a similar case, this year in Germany three frozen babies were found in a household freezer. Today a German mother has been sentenced to more than four years in jail for killing two of her babies whose bodies she stashed in the family freezer. She was not tried in connection with a third baby, also found in the freezer, who died over 20 years ago because the statute of limitations on the case had expired. The 44-year-old housewife, Monika Halbe, who was handed a four year and three month prison sentence for manslaughter, had admitted to hiding the bodies of three baby girls in the family freezer, but had denied killing them. In the macabre case that has made national headlines, it was the defendant’s teenage son who had discovered the girls’ tiny corpses in plastic bags in May when looking for a pizza in the basement freezer. The grim case revived a debate about the state of child welfare in Germany after several high-profile cases of killings by mothers came to light.

In an incident also this year, a 14-year-old girl gave birth to a full-term baby in a school bathroom and then tried to flush it down the toilet, killing the infant, police in Texas said. The occurrence at Cedar Bayou Junior High in Baytown, Texas, came just three days after another 14-year-old girl delivered a stillborn baby in the toilet of an aeroplane on her way back to Houston from a school field trip. The Harris County District Attorney's office decided not to pursue charges against the girl on the plane, who disposed of the body in a rubbish bin. The students and their chaperones were returning from New York aboard a March 30 2008 Continental Airlines flight. Houston homicide investigators interviewed both the girl and a 14-year-old boy believed to be the father. The girl, whom authorities have not identified, told police she did not know she was pregnant. Preliminary autopsy results indicated the baby was stillborn and not viable, police said. The plane landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport on a non-stop flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport. A cleaning crew found the body inside a wastebasket in the toilet of the plane about 15 minutes after it landed.

These are young girls we are talking about, old enough to experiment with sex but irresponsible and young enough not to be careful about sexually transmitted diseases and the risk of pregnancy. Young enough to panic about the consequences of a pregnancy and of giving birth under those circumstances. However, this is not only something that happens to the young and immature, as the next item shows.

Claire Jones a 32 year-old woman in Wales, told an inquest she did not know she had given birth until she started flushing her baby down a toilet by accident. She became pregnant after an affair with a work colleague but hid her condition from friends and family. After “panicking” in the toilet at her partner’s parents’ home, she hid the baby in her car boot, where police found it. Cardiff Coroner Mary Hassell said Ms Jones had built up a “web of deception”. The hearing was told Ms Jones did not reveal her pregnancy, telling friends and family, including David Stoneman, her partner of 11 years, that a wheat allergy had caused a hard mass to form in her stomach.

But on 28 December 2007, a week after her due date, she experienced pains, which she put down to diarrhoea. She told the inquest: “While I was still on the toilet, I flushed it, and I felt something pull. I stood up slightly, and I could see a foot in the bowl of the toilet.” She said the baby was underneath the water covered in toilet paper. “I could see the baby's foot, so I pulled the baby out. “I sat by the toilet. I put him on my lap. He wasn’t crying. I was trying to feel for a pulse and there was nothing.” Ms Jones was asked why she did not call for help. She said: “Because nobody knew I was pregnant. Because he wasn't breathing, I just panicked. I didn't know what to do. I wrapped him in a towel. I don’t remember how, but I must have put him in the boot of the car.”

The inquest heard Ms Jones was arrested 10 days later at the home in St Mellons, Cardiff, she shared with Mr Stoneman, and Daniel's body was found in her Vauxhall Astra car. She said she planned to leave Mr Stoneman, and her work colleague Marcus Bezerra, who was aware of the pregnancy and had bought items for the baby in preparation for his birth. When asked why she did not leave Mr Stoneman before the baby was due, she replied: “Things had got in such a mess with the two relationships. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I just messed everything up.”

The coroner said Ms Jones had manufactured “a tissue of lies” and dismissed as “beyond belief” Ms Jones' claim about not knowing if she had given birth. Ms Hassell continued: “It is impossible to know if Daniel would have survived if Ms Jones, who had her mobile telephone with her in the toilet, had called for help. The house was full of people who, I have no doubt, would have rushed to her aid. She did not seek medical attention for herself or for her baby. If Daniel was stillborn, it is not possible to say why he did not survive. If he was born alive, the most likely reason for his death was drowning in the toilet bowl.”

The extremes of irresponsibility in these days of selfish pleasures seem to involve sad cases like these. We have lost our dignity and our respect of life. That most sacred of bonds, that of mother and child, is being degraded and corrupted. How can we explain this apparent spate of child killings? Is it really a sign of our times? Careful investigation of the evidence suggests otherwise. Infanticide ha been practiced since ancient times and is still widespread in many societies around the world. In China and India infanticide of female newborns is still common practice (as is abortion of female fetuses).

What drives a mother to kill her child? Is it hardness of circumstances or hardness of heart? The mother with the hardest of hearts who slew her children was Medea. According to Greek myth, she killed her children as revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason (of Golden Fleece fame). The term “Medea syndrome” derives from this legend. The following factors represent examples of both hardness of life and hardness of heart causing infanticide.

Human sacrifice is one of the earliest recorded forms of infanticide. Archaeological evidence indicates that prehistoric children were sacrificed to the gods. By offering a valued possession to the gods, humans have long attempted to appease a deity. What more valuable than a newborn child?

Poverty, famine, and population control are inter-related factors. Where safe and effective birth control was unavailable, infanticide was used to selectively limit the growth of a community. Infanticide allowed for selection of the fittest or most desirable offspring, with sick, deformed, female, or multiple births targeted for disposal.

Female infanticide is a problem rooted in a culture of sexism throughout antiquity. In many cultures girls have little value. Even when female children were not killed at birth, their needs were neglected, particularly if limited resources were needed to ensure the survival of male offspring.

Deformed or defective newborns have been disposed of by most cultures across the ages. From an evolutionary standpoint, parents decide whether to invest their energy in raising a deformed or sick child that may not survive to perpetuate the family lines.

Illegitimacy is another factor leading to infanticide through the ages. To avoid shame and censure, women have secretively disposed of illegitimate babies since early Roman times. Illegitimacy and poverty are the most common reasons for infanticide in the twenty-first century.

Finally, superstitious beliefs regarding children and childbirth contributed to the practice of infanticide. In many cultures, twins were believed to be evil and were promptly killed. In some tribal societies, twins of the opposite gender were believed to have committed incest in the womb and were condemned. In some cases only one twin was killed. Other superstitions involve unlucky days of the week, breech presentations, the presence of baby teeth at birth, or atmospheric conditions during birth. Ignorance, fear, and legend have contributed to the deaths of infants throughout the ages.

More recently, especially in developed countries the psychological status of women who have just given birth has been examined and post-partum depression and other psychological states in the post-partum period have been described. Legal debate centres on the use of post-partum depression as a legal defence in infanticide (homicide) cases. The American Psychiatric Association first recognised post-partum depression (PPD) in 1994. Since then, American courts have begun to recognise PPD as a legitimate defence, although it has rarely been used successfully. Approximately 20 percent of all new mothers experience PPD, a serious and lasting depression. One out of every thousand new mothers will experience psychotic symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, and incoherent thinking. Because British law has long assumed that mothers who kill suffer from mental illness, British doctors treat PPD aggressively and British courts rule with more leniency than American courts. Many researchers suggest that the United States should follow the British approach.

When I was confronted by these news items in a short period of time, I had a very visceral and immediate emotional reaction. My first thought was abhorrence and revulsion. However, the more I think about it and the more I investigate the matter, the more complicated it becomes. The reasons why parents choose to destroy their offspring defy simple explanation. In the past, harsh conditions, lack of effective contraception, unavailability of abortion as an option for ending an unwanted pregnancy and lack of information may have contributed to the problem. In modern times many of these reasons have disappeared, but human nature has remained the same and this continues to drive infanticide rates. Are these parents who practice it unfortunate, uneducated, immature, evil, selfish, or mentally ill? Perhaps the answer lies in a combination of these explanations. Understanding of the multiple causes of infanticide can only lead to better means of prevention.

(A very confronting article on infanticide is linked here. Please don’t read it if the matter causes you distress).

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