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In sociology and biology, infanticide is the practice of intentionally causing the death of an infant of a given species by a member or members of the same species. Many past societies permitted certain forms of infanticide, whereas most modern societies consider the practice immoral and illegal. Nonetheless, the practice has continued in some poor countries because of tacit societal acceptance, and sometimes in Western countries (usually because of the parent's mental illness or penchant for violent behavior). However, such a practice is highly undesirable from many aspects, and human society would benefit from eliminating the circumstances leading to its continued use.


In sociology and biology, infanticide is the practice of intentionally causing the death of an infant of a given species by a member or members of the same species. Several species other than homo sapiens commit infanticide, particularly fish and reptiles. One perhaps surprising mammalian example is the bottlenose dolphin, which has been reported to kill its young through impact injuries.[1]

Birth distinguishes infanticide from abortion; killing an unborn child or fetus signifies abortion, but the act becomes infanticide upon birth. "Partial birth abortion," a non-medical term applied to some late-term abortion procedures, seems to blur the line between the two, hence the ensuing controversy and political debate. [2] As former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, "This is too close to infanticide." [3] While the general population remains divided over the morality of abortion, most people consider infanticide immoral.

In the United Kingdom, the Infanticide Act defines "infanticide" as a specific crime committed by the mother only during the first twelve months of her infant's life. This article deals with the broader notion of infanticide explained above.

Infanticide in history

Infanticide was common in most literate ancient cultures, including those of ancient Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan. The practice of infanticide has taken many forms, such as child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, as allegedly practiced in ancient Carthage. However, many societies regarded child sacrifice as morally repugnant and did not consider infanticide a religious or spiritual act. The practice has become less common, but continues in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India.[4] Female infants, then and now, are particularly vulnerable, in the practice known as sex-selective infanticide.

Ancient Jewish practice condemned 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."[5] In Book 5 of his Histories, Tacitus wrote of how "…all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness" and included infanticide among them: "It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant."[6]

One frequent method of infanticide in antiquity was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to die by exposure or whatever other fate befell it, particularly slavery and prostitution. Another method commonly used with female children was to severely malnourish them, resulting in a vastly increased risk of death by accident or disease.

In some periods of Roman history, parents traditionally brought their newborn to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged the pater familias to put to death a child with visible deformities. Although infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374 C.E., offenders were rarely, if ever, prosecuted. Roman texts describe the practice of smearing the breast with opium residue so that a nursing baby would die with no outward cause.

From its earliest days, Christianity rejected the notion of infanticide. The Didache prescribed, "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born."[7] So widely accepted was this teaching that Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, wrote:

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.... And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers. [8]

The condemnation of infanticide spread with Christianity—Njal's Saga, the account of how Christianity came to Iceland, concludes with the proscription of pagan worship and exposure of infants.[9]

Historical Inuit demographic studies show a large child sex imbalance, with sometimes nearly two males per female. Most anthropologists attribute this, at least in part, to widespread female deselection in the form of infanticide. Theories suggest that some Inuit families practiced sex-selective infanticide to limit population growth, balance adult population ratios (due to the high mortality rates among adult males), a psychological preference for males, or because sons made a greater contribution to their parents' lives by sharing their hunting produce. [10]

Infanticide occurred throughout the period of U.S. slavery because some enslaved women thought it better to kill their children than to subject them to a life without freedom. The legal system did not cover slaves, so the rate of infanticide throughout antebellum history remains ambiguous. Toni Morrison's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, deals with the complexity of motherhood under chattel slavery and the controversial issue of infanticide therein.

Explanations for the practice

Many historians attribute infanticide primarily to economic factors, especially a family's inability to support a certain number of children. In times of famine or cases of extreme poverty, parents may have had to choose which of their children would live and which would starve.

However, this does not explain why infanticide occurred equally among rich and poor, nor why it was as frequent during decadent periods of the Roman Empire as during earlier, more affluent periods. A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 B.C.E., described the casual nature with which Roman society often viewed infanticide: "Know that I am still in Alexandria. [...] I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son [...] If you are delivered [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it."[11]

Some anthropologists have suggested other causes for infanticide in non-state and non-industrialized societies. Janet Siskind argued that female infanticide may be a form of population control in Amazonian societies 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 supported this argument, it has been criticized as an example of environmental determinism. In the Solomon Islands, some people reportedly kill their first-born child as a matter of custom. They then adopt a child from another island, a practice suggesting that complex and diverse factors contribute to infanticide.

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. 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.

An alternate school of thought blames the practice, both modern and historical, on psychological inability to raise children. Contemporary data suggests that modern infanticide is often brought about by a combination of postpartum depression and psychological unreadiness to raise children. It could also be exacerbated by schizophrenia. In some cases, unwed and underage parents practice infanticide to conceal their sexual relations and/or to avoid the responsibility of childrearing.

Sex-selective infanticide

Sex-selective abortion is the practice of aborting a fetus after determining (usually by ultrasound but also rarely by amniocentesis or another procedure) that the fetus is of the undesired sex. Sex-selective infanticide is the practice of infanticide against an infant of the undesired sex. Sex-selective abandonment is the practice of giving an infant of the undesired sex up for adoption.

Family sex selection is most common in societies where a large dowry must be paid upon marriage. In these societies, families tend to favor males, as they do not have to pay a dowry. Some hunter-gatherers also practice female infanticide because males have a higher death rate than females. Parents may wish for a male child because, in many cultures, only a male will carry on the family name (when a bride marries, she effectively becomes a member of the groom's family).

In some countries, such as India, it has been the case that parents sometimes kill their daughters because of the seemingly low economic rewards of raising them. The dowry price, which can be up to ten times what an average family in India makes a year, can leave a family in debt. In such cases, women or girls will no longer be able to support their parents once they marry. On the other hand, a boy will support his family until he dies, making bringing up a boy much more lucrative.

Sex-selective abortion was rare before the late twentieth century because of the difficulty of determining the sex of the fetus before birth, but the advent of ultrasound made it much easier. However, prior to this, parents would alter family sex composition through infanticide. Sex-selective abortion is believed to be responsible for at least part of the skewed birth statistics in favor of males in mainland China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. Although the practice is often illegal, laws against it are extremely difficult to enforce because there is often no practical way to determine the parents' true motivation for seeking an abortion. The issue also remains difficult to study, since people almost always keep such information as private as possible.


There are 100 million "missing" women in the world, partly due to infanticide. China and India have the highest rates because of sex-selective infanticide and abortion.


Population pressures throughout certain periods of Chinese history, such as the Qing dynasty, contributed to sex-selective infanticide. Chinese tradition says that most parents want their first child to be male, thus making female deselection common. Many Chinese parents desire sons in order to ensure familial propagation, security for the elderly, labor provision, and performance of ancestral rites.

Sex-selective abortion and abandonment likely contribute to the strong imbalance in sex ratios, especially in efforts to circumvent China's "one child policy." This problem of female deselection in China is known as the "missing girl" problem.

In response to sex-selective abortions, mainland China has made it illegal for a physician to reveal the sex of a fetus, but female infanticide lingers in China as a result of this law. Sex-selective abandonment, which is also prevalent in China, often serves as an alternative to self-selective abortion. About 95 percent of children in Chinese orphanages are able-bodied girls with living biological parents. Many abandoned Chinese girls have been adopted by Westerners and brought to the United States or Canada, while others have been adopted domestically by childless Chinese couples.


Sociologists attribute the popularity of female deselection in India to three factors: economic utility, sociocultural utility, and religious functions. With respect to economic utility, studies indicate that sons are more likely than daughters to provide family farm labor, provide in or for a family business, earn wages, and give old-age support for parents. Upon marriage, a son makes a daughter-in-law an addition and asset to the family, as she provides additional assistance in household work and brings an economic reward through dowry payments. On the converse, daughters are married out of the family and merit an economic penalty through dowry charges.

The sociocultural utility factor of female deselection in India resembles that in China. In India's patrilineal and patriarchal system of families, having at least one son is mandatory in order to continue the familial line, and a family with many sons garners additional value. Finally, Hindu tradition holds that only sons are allowed to provide, therefore justifying the religious function of female deselection. According to Hindu tradition, sons are mandatory because they kindle the funeral pyre of their late parents and assist in the soul salvation.

Because of the prevalence of sex-selective abortion as a method of female deselection, Indian law prohibits expectant parents from determining the sex their child using ultra-sound scans. Laboratories cannot reveal the fetus' sex during such scans. While most established labs comply with the law, determined persons can find a way to obtain the information. Like the Chinese, Indians also use the postnatal alternative, which is sex-selective infanticide. Some turn to people called Dais, traditional midwives, historically female, who offer female deselection by turning newborn girls upside-down, snapping their spinal cords, and then declaring them stillborn.

Ethical debates and consequences

Many philosophers have grappled with the issue of whether or not abortion and infanticide carry the same moral implications, discussing what constitutes the "right to life." Joseph Fletcher, founder of "situational ethics" and a euthanasia proponent, proposed that infanticide be permitted in cases of severe birth defects. He considered infanticide, in certain cases, a logical extension of abortion.

Peter Singer, an Australian humanist and philosopher, holds that the right to physical integrity is grounded in a being's ability to suffer, and the right to life is grounded in—among other things—the ability to plan and anticipate one's future. Since the unborn, infants, and severely disabled people lack the latter (but not the former) ability, he states that abortion, painless infanticide, and euthanasia can be justified in certain special circumstances, for instance a severely disabled infant whose life would cause suffering both to himself and to his parents.

Michael Tooley, author of the controversial article "Abortion and Infanticide," outlined the conditions that give an organism the right to life. He contends that human fetuses and infants do not meet the right to life qualifications; therefore, abortion and infanticide do not defy basic moral principles.[12] Tooley's philosophy prompts the most controversy because he does not differentiate infanticide from abortion and euthanasia. To him, an infant—healthy or suffering—has no more right to life than a fetus. However, the line between Tooley's "infant," with no right to life, and a "child," with this right, is one that cannot be drawn based on a clear event, in the way that birth transforms a fetus into an infant, and thus is inevitably controversial.

Reporter Cara Cook refuted the convictions of the aforementioned philosophers in her article for the Concerned Women for America (CWA). Cook argued that a thin line separates abortion, infanticide, and physician-assisted suicide. She charged that the pro-life contingent inconsistently defines morality, as they consider abortion moral and infanticide immoral.[13]

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 to children. Some anthropologists studying societies that practice infanticide, however, have reported on the affection and love such parents display toward to their children. (Harris and Divale's work on the relationship between female infanticide and warfare suggests that there are, however, extensive negative effects).

Sex-selective abortion and infanticide may make it more difficult for the larger-population gender of that generation to seek heterosexual romantic relationships. According to demographic trends, by 2020 there could be more than 35 million young "surplus males" in China and 25 million in India, all of whom would be unable to find girlfriends or wives, assuming that they seek one.

Regardless of the various justifications that have been presented, infanticide is clearly not the method of choice in accomplishing any goal that a humane society could support. Therefore, greater efforts should be made to eliminate those circumstances in which parents turn to infanticide as the solution to otherwise insurmountable difficulties.


  1. Infanticide Reported in Dolphins
  2.'s Pros & Cons of Partial Birth Abortion
  3. Partial-Birth Abortion - A Chink In The Pro-Abortion Armor
  4. Case Study: Female Infanticide
  5. Dietrich, Thomas. The Origin of Culture and Civilization. Austin, TX: TurnKey Press, 2005, pp. 166.
  6. Tacitus, The Histories
  7. Didache: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles
  8. The First Apology of Justin
  9. Iceland Accepts Christianity
  10. Smith, Eric Alden and S. Abigail Smith. 1994. "Inuit Sex-Ratio Variation: Population Control, Ethnographic Error, or Parental Manipulation?" Current Anthropology 35:5 (Dec. 1994): 595-624.
  11. Lewis, Naphtali. Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule.
  12. Tooley, Michael. Abortion and Infanticide, Philosophy and Public Affairs 2:1 (Autumn, 1972): 37-65.
  13. Infanticide and Abortion: Fruits of the Same Tree

External links

All links retrieved March 2, 2018.


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