That Old-Time Infanticide

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In case you haven’t heard, infanticide is sweeping the nation. As President Pious explained in a speech in Wisconsin on April 27th:

“The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor, they take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully, and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” (The baby is apparently executed with a karate chop, judging from the President’s body language.)

No wonder Senator Sasse of Nebraska was compelled to introduce the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors” bill. (The “Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002” obviously isn’t doing the trick.)

Clovis, New Mexico. Photo: Schizandra Johnson

To fully appreciate the infanticide revival, it might be helpful to revisit the many centuries when infanticide was all the rage. So I cobbled together a bunch of quotes from scholarly literature on the subject.

Like this one, from Professor Cornelia H. Dayton, a specialist in early British North America:

“Infanticide, the deliberate killing of newborn infants, was the most universal method of population control in preindustrial societies.”

Laila Williamson, an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History, adds:

“Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.”

But what is that in cold, hard numbers?

Larry S. Milner, M.D., in his groundbreaking study of the subject, estimates that “10-15% of all children ever born have been killed by their parents.”

So why have some 7 BILLION infants been killed by their parents through the ages?

Steven Pinker of MIT sums it up: “If a family had a viable child that had survived infancy which would be endangered by a new and uncertain life, that new baby had to go.”

You’re probably wondering: What were the most common techniques that parents used to kill their children when they “had to go”?

Abandonment or exposure represents one of the oldest methods of infanticide. History is replete with stories of babies abandoned and left to die as a result of starvation, dehydration, or animal attack… Ancient Greeks and Romans readily accepted the practice of exposure to eliminate unwanted, deformed, or illegitimate children. Historians estimate that 20 to 40 percent of all babies were abandoned during the later Roman Empire.”

“Most children in antiquity…watched their mothers drown, suffocate and stab their siblings to death. Mothers often simply gave birth to their babies in the privy, smashed their heads in and treated the birth as an evacuation. Romans reported watching hundreds of mothers throwing their newborn into the Tiber every morning. So many infants were killed that even though mothers had eight or more babies the populations of antiquity regularly decreased.”

Suffocation has been one of the most common methods of infanticide throughout the ages. ‘Overlaying,’ the practice of suffocating or smothering an infant in bed, occurred in medieval England. Overlaying remained a problem in England into the twentieth century. In 1894 a London coroner reported that over 1,000 infants died as a result of overlaying.”

“The practice of drowning unwanted infants at birth is a long held practice in China. The anthropologist Steven Mosher describes how a bucket of water is readied at the bedside to drown female newborns. This practice was so prevalent in 1943 that an official government publication prohibited the drowning of infant girls.”

“Infant girls born in India were often drowned in a pit filled with milk, referred to as ‘making them drink milk.’”

Swaddling or restraining infants to calm or contain their movements has been a near universal practice, although it was almost entirely discontinued in the United States and England by the end of the eighteenth century. If performed improperly, swaddling can result in suffocation and permanent injury. Swaddled infants could be ‘laid for hours behind the hot oven, hung on pegs on the wall, placed in tubs and in general left like a parcel in every convenient corner.’”

“Early reports of burning and eating of children in human sacrifices were followed in classical Athens by the practice of keeping victims called Pharmakoi who were ritually stoned to death as scapegoats for the sins of others.”

Was there any way to know if your baby was worthy of not being killed?

“In the second century A.D., the Roman senator and physician Quintus Marcius Barea Soranus wrote an influential treatise on gynecology that included a section entitled “How to Recognize the Newborn that is Worth Rearing.”

What did they do with all those dead babies (in addition to throwing them in rivers and flushing them down the privy)?

“Mass burials of thousands of sacrificed infants have been discovered in early states from Germany and France to Carthage, where archaeologists found one cemetery filled with over 20,000 urns containing bones of children sacrificed by their parents…”

What was the lamest excuse for infanticide? I don’t know, but here’s a goodie:

Common law in England presumed that a child was born dead. According to early Jewish law, an infant was not deemed viable until it was thirty days old. During the 1950s the chief rabbi of Israel, Ben Zion Uziel, said that if an infant who was not yet thirty days old was killed, the killer could not be executed because the infant’s life was still in doubt.”

As Professor Pinker explains, infanticide has become very rare in post-industrial societies. “The several-thousandfold reduction in infanticide enjoyed in the Western world today is partly a gift of affluence, which leaves fewer mothers in desperate straights, and partly a gift of technology, in the form of safe and reliable contraception and abortion that has reduced the number of unwanted newborns.”

So maybe if we get rid of abortion and birth control, the infanticide dreams of Senator Sasse and President Pious will really come true.

Arlington, Texas. Photo: David Bonner

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