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Killing of an infant before or after birth

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Infanticide, child-murder, the killing of an infant before or after birth. According to the French Criminal Code the word is limited to the murder of the new-born infant. In English it has been used for the deprivation of life from the moment of conception up to the age of two or three years. Except under Hebrew and Christian law, the killing of very young children by their parents has almost invariably been either legally permitted or at least practiced with impunity. Economic reasons more than any others had led to the killing of infants before or after birth and have continued to exert an unfortunate influence even down to our own day. In Oriental countries certain poetic and religious traditions were appealed to in justification of the custom of killing infants, but as a rule the economic basis for it is clear. In many countries it was the custom to get rid of many of the female infants because they were unproductive, and generally expensive, members of the family. Sometimes usage required large dowries to be given with them. In India infanticide continued to be practiced until far into the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the efforts of the British Government to put an end to it. In Greece and Rome, even at the height of their culture, the custom of exposing infants obtained, and in China and Japan delicate or deformed children were abandoned, or even healthy females, where there were male children in the family. Missionaries have done much to break up the custom and many children have been saved by them in the last few generations to be reared in the light of Christianity. Christianity first opposed a formal and effectual barrier to infanticide. Immediately after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion he enacted two laws (about A.D. 320) directed against child-murder which are still found in the Theodosian Code (lib. XI, tit. xxvii). The first, to remove temptation, provided funds out of the imperial treasury for parents over-burdened with children; the second accorded all the rights of property of exposed infants to those who had had the charity to save and nurture them.

In modern times even in Christian countries two causes have led to post-natal infanticide: one, the disgrace attendant upon illegitimacy; the other, an economic reason. Illegitimate children were sacrificed partly for the concealment of shame, but often to escape the burden of the child’s support. The crime occurs most frequently where illegitimacy is most frequent and, according to statistics, is least common in Ireland. In countries where children are readily received without question into institutions, infanticide is rare. In France the law forbids inquiry into paternity, and arrangements are made for the state care of the children. In Russia even more liberal provision is made for the state care of any child whose parents cannot or will not care for it. The question of child-murder by mothers has always been a difficult legal problem. Under a statute of James I of England, the mother had to account for the death of her infant or be held responsible for it. In 1803 trials for infanticide were placed under the ordinary rules of evidence. The presumption now is that every new-born child found dead was born dead unless the contrary is proved. This rule of English law holds in the United States. Infanticide has been quite common in European countries during the nineteenth century for two sordid reasons: one was the neglect of infants in the process of what was known as baby-farming, the other was the desire to obtain insurance money. This abuse has been regulated in various ways, but baby-farming and child-insurance still seriously increase the death-rate among infants.

PRE-NATAL INFANTICIDE, the murder of an infant before birth. This is more properly called feticide. Among the ancient philosophers and medieval theologians there was considerable discussion as to when the human embryo could be said to possess human life. This is no longer a question among modern biologists. At the very moment of conception a human being comes into existence. At any time after this the deprivation of life in this living matter, if done deliberately, is murder. The laws of most States in the Union are so framed that conditions may not be deliberately created which would put the life of the fetus in danger, or which would bring about an abortion before the fetus is viable, unless it has been decided in a consultation of physicians that the lives of both mother and child are in danger and only one of them can be saved. The comparative safety of the Caesarean section has also worked in the direction of safeguarding the life of the unborn child. The killing of a viable child because it is impossible to deliver it by the natural birth passages is now condemned by physicians all over the world. Craniotomy, that is, the crushing of the skull of a living child in order to facilitate its delivery, where great difficulty was encountered, was a common teaching in medical schools a generation ago, but the stand taken by the Church has had its effect in gradually bringing about a change of teaching and a recognition of the right of the child to life. Craniotomy on the living child is now never considered justifiable. When it is definitely known that the fetus is dead, crushing methods may be employed to extract it piecemeal, but this procedure is much more dangerous for the mother than Caesarean section.

Many drugs are purchased by women with the idea that they will produce abortion without endangering the mother’s life. No such drugs are known to modern medical science. There are drugs in the pharmacopoeia which produce abortions, but only by affecting the mother very seriously. Abortion sometimes occurs after the taking of certain drugs supposed to produce it; but the premature birth is not due to the drug, it is caused by other influences. Twenty per cent of all pregnancies end in premature births. The unfortunate woman who has had recourse to the drug then imagines that she has committed infanticide, and in intention she has; but the actual event has not been the result of the drug, unless that drug was one of the poisonous kind known as “abortifacients” and abortion took place in the convulsion which followed. It is absolutely certain that no known drug will produce abortion without producing very serious effects upon the mother, and even gravely endangering her life.

(For the teaching of the Church on prenatal infanticide, see Abortion.)


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