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Infanticide is the practice of intentionally causing the death of an infant. In nearly all past societies certain forms of infanticide were considered proper, whereas in most modern societies the practice is considered immoral and criminal.

Infanticide in History

Infanticide was common in all well-studied ancient cultures, including those of ancient Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan. 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. The end of the practice of infanticide in the ancient world coincided with the rise of Christianity as a major religion. The practice was never completely eradicated, however, and even continues today in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation. Female infants, then and now, are particularly vulnerable.

One frequent method of infanticide in antiquity was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to death by exposure. 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 cultures this is thought to have been an open and accepted practice, while in others it may have been practiced privately, with the passive acceptance of society.

Classic Roman civilization can serve as an example of both aspects. In some periods of Roman history it was traditional 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 the pater familias to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. Although infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374 CE, 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.

Explanations for the practice

Many historians believe the reason to be primarily economic, with more children born into families than the family is prepared to support. 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, less affluent, periods.

A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 B.C., describes 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.

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. 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 Devale supports this argument, it has been criticized as an example of environmental determinism. In the Solomon Islands, some people customarily kill the first-born child -- and then adopt a child from another island, a practice that suggests that the causes of infanticide are more complex.

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.

In some cases, infanticide may have been practiced to eliminate children with birth defects or circumstances of birth deemed unfavorable for religious reasons. The extent of such practices is often widely debated; for instance, academics argue whether infanticide of children with birth defects was a standard practice in ancient Greece, or limited to occasional incidents. It has also been alleged that twins were, in some societies, considered unlucky and thus exposed, though again the extent of such practices is debated.

A minority of academics subscribe to an alternate school of thought blaming the practice, both modern and historical, on psychological inability to raise children (see early infanticidal childrearing).

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

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

In the absence of sex-selective abortion, sex-selective infanticide can be deduced from very skewed birth statistics. The natural male to female birth ratio is slightly below 1:1, and the life expectancy of females is naturally greater than males. When a society has a male to female ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 in children or adults, infanticide is a safe conclusion.

There have been some accusations that infanticide occurs in China due to the one child policy although most demographers do not believe that the practice is widespread.


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