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Infanticide in Law: Definition & Statistics

Instructor: Erica Hutton

Dr. Erica Hutton is a Criminal Psychologist & Profiler; she teaches collegiate courses in Psychology & Criminal Justice & holds a PhD in Criminal Justice.

In this lesson, the concept of infanticide will be defined and discussed. Learn about the types of infanticide as well as its worldwide prevalence and punishments. After the lesson, take a brief quiz to test yourself.

What is Infanticide?

When the crime of infanticide is committed, this means that there was a deliberate killing of a child that is under a year old. The word infant is Latin and pertains to the inability to speak.

There are different classifications of infanticide that are based upon the age of the victim. Those children that are a year old or under that are murdered are seen as victims of infanticide. Neonaticide is when there is a deliberate killing of an infant within 24 hours of birth. Filicide means that an individual responsible for the murder of the child is the parent or guardian of the child; therefore, many cases of infanticide and neonaticide are also cases of filicide.

In fact, the majority of infanticide crimes are committed by parents or surrogate parents. Fathers are more likely than mothers to commit the act of infanticide; however, mothers are more likely to commit the act of neonaticide.

Reasons for Infanticide

As early as the 1920s, Western society began to recognize the incredible amount of stress that women undergo due to child-birthing. Postpartum depression is a condition that many mothers of newborns experience after childbirth. It is characterized by feelings of extreme sadness and anxiety. Many women feel overwhelmed and unable to care for their children or complete daily tasks. Sometimes, this condition worsens into postpartum psychosis, which can include paranoia, extreme mood swings, and even auditory or visual hallucinations. Many women who commit infanticide are suffering from one or both of these illnesses.

Within the United States, one of the most infamous cases of infanticide pertains to the case of Andrea Yates, a Texas mother that murdered her five children (ranging in six months of age to seven years old) in 2001, by drowning them in the bathtub. Yates was reportedly suicidal and she was diagnosed as suffering from a severe case of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. The predominant reason that the case gained national attention is due to the mental illness associated to the use of the insanity defense. Cases of infanticide date back to the biblical time period with the first text regarding postpartum disorders was published in 1858.

In a court of law, defendants may also point to an extreme amount of duress as the reason behind infanticide. Duress pertains to the level of stress the parent was under that may have contributed to the homicide. For example, a father may claim that he had recently lost his job, and that his fear of not being able to pay bills and provide for his family put him under so much stress that he was not thinking clearly.

Some defendants claim they committed infanticide because of an overwhelming sense of obligation. This means that the parent felt he or she had not other choice. For example, perhaps a child was suffering from an illness. That illness caused the child pain, and a parent was not able to afford proper care. In this case, a parent may have felt that infanticide was the only way to prevent the child's suffering.

Defendants in some international courts of law also claim something similar to self-defense. This does not mean that the infant was trying to kill anyone. Rather, it pertains to some cultural beliefs that excuse infanticide. For example, there are certain cultures that embrace female infanticide, which is a concept also known as gendercide, the most common form of infanticide. In situations like this, males are considered to be more valuable within that particular society than women. Therefore, it is not considered a crime to commit infanticide against a female. There are many different cultures worldwide with many customs relating to infanticide. Many of these customs would not be a viable defense for the the crime of infanticide in the United States.

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