AskDefine | Define infanticide

Dictionary Definition



1 a person who murders an infant
2 murdering an infant

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  • a UK /ɪnˈfæntɪsaɪd/ /in"f

Extensive Definition

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 due to sex-selective infanticide.
In the United Kingdom, 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. The broader notion of infanticide, as described below, is the subject matter of this article.

Infanticide throughout history and pre-history

The practice of infanticide has taken many forms. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as the one practiced in ancient Carthage, may be only the most notorious example in the ancient world. Regardless of the reasons, throughout history infanticide has been common. Anthropologist Laila Williamson noted:
Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.
A frequent method of infanticide in ancient Europe and Asia was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to die by exposure. In the Oceania tribes infanticide was carried out by suffocating the infant, while in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in the Inca Empire it was carried out by sacrifice (see below).

Paleolithic and Neolithic

Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. Joseph Birdsell believes in infanticide rates of 15-50% of the total number of births in prehistoric times. Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15-20%.

In ancient history

Child sacrifice, the ritualistic killing of children in order to please supernatural beings, was far more common in ancient history than in present times.

In the New World

Archaeologists have uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice at several locations.

In the Old World

Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Infants were offered to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage "[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith."
Greece and Rome
The historical Greeks considered barbarous the practice of adult and child sacrifice. However, exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it. A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 BCE, 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."
In some periods of Roman history it was traditional 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. Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374 CE, but offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted.
Although there are many instances in the Bible of ancient Hebrews sacrificing their children to heathen gods (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3 & 17:17, 30-31 & 21:6 & 23:4, 10; Jeremiah 7:31-32 & 19:5 & 32:35; Ezekial 16: 20-21, 31; Judges 11:31), Judaism prohibits infanticide. Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews "regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children." Josephus, whose works give an important insight into first-century Judaism, wrote that God "forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward."
Pagan European tribes
In his book Germania, Tacitus wrote that the ancient Germanic tribes enforced a similar prohibition. He found such mores remarkable and commented: "[The Germani] hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child." Modern scholarship differs. John Boswell believed that in ancient Germanic tribes unwanted children were exposed, usually in the forest. "It was the custom of the [Teutonic] pagans, that if they wanted to kill a son or daughter, they would be killed before they had been given any food."


Christianity rejected infanticide. The Teachings of the Apostles or Didache said "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born." The Epistle of Barnabas stated an identical command. So widely accepted was this teaching in Christendom that apologists Tertullian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr and Lactantius also maintained that exposing a baby to death was a wicked act.

Middle Ages

Whereas theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents. At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river even in day light.
Child sacrifice was practiced by the Gauls, Celts and the Irish. "They would kill their piteous wretched offspring with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood around Crom Cruaich", a deity of pre-Christian Ireland.
Unlike other European regions, in the Middle Ages the German mother had the right to expose the newborn. In Gotland, Sweden, children were also sacrificed.


In Russia, peasants sacrificed their sons and daughters to the pagan god Perun. Although Church law forbid infanticide, it used to be practiced. Some rural people threw children to the swine. In Medieval Russia secular laws did not deal with what, for the church, was a crime. The Svans killed the newborn females by filling their mouths with hot ashes.


Marco Polo, the famed explorer, saw newborns exposed in Manzi. China's society promoted gendercide. Philosopher Han Fei Tzu, a member of the ruling aristocracy of the 3rd century BCE, who developed a school of law, wrote: "As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death." Among the Hakka people, and in Yunnan, Anhwei, Szechwan, Jiangxi and Fukien a method of killing the baby was to put her into a bucket of cold water, which was called "baby water".


In Japan the common slang for infanticide used to be "mabiki". It has been estimated that 40% of newborn babies were killed in Kyushu. A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby's mouth and nose. Mabiki persisted in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

India and Pakistan

Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in India. According to Firishta, as soon as a female child was born she was hold "in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death". The practice of female infanticide was also common among the Kutch, Kehtri, Nagar, Gujarat, Miazed, Kalowries and Sind (Pakistan) inhabitants.
It was not uncommon that parents threw a child to the sharks in the Ganges River as a sacrificial offering. The British colonists were unable to outlaw the custom until the beginnings of the 19th century. Others state that "female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time" (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.


Infanticide is explicitly prohibited by the Qur'an. "And do not kill your children for fear of poverty; We give them sustenance and yourselves too; surely to kill them is a great wrong."


Infanticide in tribal societies was more frequent than infanticide in both Western and Eastern civilizations. Lucien Lévy-Brühl noted that, because of fear of a drought, if a baby was born feet first in British East Africa, she or he was smothered. The Tswana people did the same since they feared the newborn would bring ill fortune to the parents. Similarly, William Sumner noted that the Vadshagga killed children whose upper incisors came first. If a mother died in childbirth among the Ibo people of Nigeria, the newborn was buried alive. It suffered a similar fate if the father died.
In The Child in Primitive Society, Nathan Miller wrote in the 1920s that among the Kuni tribe every mother had killed at least one of her children. Child sacrifice was practiced as late as 1929 in Zimbabwe, where a daughter of the tribal chief used to be sacrificed as a petition of rain.


Infanticide among the autochthone people in the Oceania islands is widespread. In some areas of the Fiji islands up to 50% of newborn infants were killed. In the 19th century Ugi, in the Solomon islands almost 75% of the indigenous children had been brought from adjoining tribes due to the high incidence rate of infanticide, a unique feature of these tribal societies. In another Solomon island, San Cristóbal, the firstborn was considered "ahubweu" and often buried alive. As a rationale for their behavior, some parents in British New Guinea complained: "Girls [...] don't become warriors, and they don't stay to look for us in our old age."


According to Bronislaw Malinowski, who wrote a book on indigenous Australians in the early 1960s, "infanticide is practiced among all Australian natives." The practice has been reported in Tasmania, Western Australia, Central Australia, South Australia, in the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Anthropologist Géza Róheim wrote: When the Yumu, Pindupi, Ngali, or Nambutji were hungry, they ate small children with neither ceremonial nor animistic motives. Among the southern tribes, the Matuntara, Mularatara, or Pitjentara, every second child was eaten in the belief that the strength of the first child would be doubled by such a procedure.
Family units usually consisted of three children. Brough Smyth, a 19th century researcher, estimated that in Victoria about 30% of the births resulted in infanticide. Mildred Dickeman concurs that that figure is accurate in other Australia tribes as a result of a surplus of the birthrate. Cannibalism was observed in Victoria at the beginning of the 20th century. The Wotjo tribe, as well as the tribes of the lower Murray River, sometimes killed a newborn to feed an older sibling.
Thomas Robert Malthus wrote that, in the New South Wales region, when the mother died sucking infants were buried alive with her. In the Darling River region, infanticide was practiced "by a blow on the back of the head, by strangling with a rope, or chocking with sand".
In Queensland a tribal woman could have children after the age of thirty. Otherwise babies would be killed.
The Aranda tribes in the Northern Territory used the method of choking the newborn with coal, sand or kill her with a stick.
According to James George Frazer, in the Beltana tribes in South Australia it was customary to kill the first-born.
Twins were always killed by the Arrernte in central Australia.
Aram Yengoyan calculated that, in Western Australia, the Pitjandjara people killed 19% of their newborns.
In the 19th century the native Tasmanians were exterminated by the colonists, who regarded them as a degenerate race. Richard H. Davies (fl. 1830s - 1887), a brother of Archdeacon Davies, wrote that Tasmanian "females have been known to desert their infants for the sake of suckling the puppies", which were later used for hunting. Like other tribal Australians, when the mother died the child was buried as well. Families were supposed to rear no more than two children. Writing about the natives, Raymond Firth noted: "If another child is born, it is buried in the earth and covered with stones".


In Hawaii infanticide was a socially sanctioned practice before the Christian missions. Infanticidal methods included strangling the children or, more frequently, burying them alive.


Infanticide was quite intense in Tahiti.

North America

Infanticide and child sacrifice was practiced in the New World at times when in Western Europe it was largely abandoned.


There is no agreement about the actual estimates of the frequency of newborn female infanticide in the Eskimo population. Carmel Schrire mentions diverse studies ranging from 15-50% to 80%.
Polar Eskimos killed the child by throwing him or her into the sea. There is even a legend in Eskimo folklore, "The Unwanted Child", where a mother throws her child into the fjord.
The Yukon and the Mahlemuit tribes of Alaska exposed the female newborns by first stuffing their mouths with grass before leaving them to die. In Arctic Canada the Eskimos exposed their babies on the ice and left to die.


The Handbook of North American Indians reports infanticide and cannibalism among the Dene Indians and those of the Mackenzie Mountains.

Native Americans

In the Eastern Shoshone there was a scarcity of Indian women as a result of female infanticide. For the Maidu native Americans twins were so dangerous that they not only killed them, but the mother as well. In the region known today as southern Texas, the Mariame Indians practiced infanticide of females on a large scale. Wives had to be obtained from neighboring groups.


Bernal Díaz recounted that, after landing on the Veracruz coast, they came across a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. "That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol". In The Conquest of New Spain Díaz describes more child sacrifices in the towns before the Spaniards reached the large Aztec city Tenochtitlan.

South America

Although academic data of infanticides among the indigenous people in South America is not as abundant as the one of North America, the estimates seem to be similar.


The Tapirapé indigenous people of Brazil allowed no more than three children per woman. Furthermore, no more than two had to be of the same sex. If the rule was broken infanticide was practiced. The people in the Bororo tribe killed all the newborns that did not appear healthy enough. Infanticide is also documented in the case of the Korubo people in the Amazon.

Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia

While Capacocha was practiced in the Peruvian large cities, child sacrifice in the pre-Columbian tribes of the region is less documented. However, even today studies on the Aymara Indians reveal high incidences of mortality among the newborn, especially female deaths, suggesting infanticide. Infanticide among the Chaco in Paraguay was estimated as high as 50% of all newborns in that tribe, who were usually buried. The infanticidal custom had such roots among the Ayoreo in Bolivia and Paraguay that it persisted until the late 20th century.

Present day

Although human infanticide has been widely studied, the practice has been observed in many other species of the animal kingdom since it was first seriously studied by Yukimaru Sugiyama. These include from microscopic rotifers and insects, to fish, amphibians, birds and mammals. Infanticide can be practiced by both males and females.
infanticide in German: Kindstötung
infanticide in Spanish: Infanticidio
infanticide in French: Infanticide
infanticide in Korean: 영아 살해
infanticide in Japanese: 子殺し
infanticide in Polish: Dzieciobójstwo
infanticide in Portuguese: Infanticídio
infanticide in Russian: Детоубийство
infanticide in Serbian: Инфантицид
infanticide in Finnish: Vauvojen surmaaminen
infanticide in Swedish: Barnadråp
infanticide in Chinese: 殺嬰
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