Startling facts about infanticide and mothers

A disturbing, but unsurprising, article on infanticide has appeared in a recent issue of Science Daily (12-13-10: “Unlawful Killing of Newborns Soon After Birth Five Times Higher Than Thought, French Court Study Suggests.”)

The technical term for this is neonaticide – the killing of a baby within the first 24 hours of life. Research published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood indicates that the frequency of neonaticide in certain regions of France, where the research was focused, was five times higher than official estimates had anticipated.

We have all read about the horrific levels of infanticide, especially female infanticide, in some developing countries, and have been more or less told this is due to backward social conditions in such “semi-feudal” areas. So to find that even in bourgeois France, an advanced industrial country, there can be five times the amount of neonaticide as officially predicted is an eye opener. And while there can be no doubt that the status of women and social context are major factors, this just indicates that that the “first world” should not be complacent in thinking that infanticide is especially a problem of so-called “backward” societies.

The authors of the study themselves have concluded that, contrary to expectations, it is not low social status or noticeable mental problems that are responsible for these killings in French society, but, rather, it is “low maternal self-esteem and emotional immaturity” that is responsible. These are factors having to do with the status of women and their treatment in general, not only in “semi-feudal” countries, but also those of advanced capitalism.

Simone de Beauvoir pointed out long ago, in “The Second Sex,” that “there is no such thing as maternal ‘instinct’: the word does not in any case apply to the human species. The mother’s attitude is defined by her total situation and by the way she accepts it.”

Going over the profiles of women who had killed their newborns, the researchers discovered “that the perception of a young poor, unemployed, single woman as the culprit was not borne out by the evidence.” The women were mostly around 26 years old, had other children, did not show evidence of mental problems, had no record of being abused as children, and had regular jobs. Half of them were living with the baby’s father.

They shared a common low level of self-esteem (something you can get by the way you are treated by others), emotional immaturity (also a state contributed to by others including the society’s depiction of the female) and a fear of being abandoned (definitely the product of a bad-faith relationship on the part of the other creating an atmosphere of dependency).

The authors write: “Feeling very much alone, and for nearly half of them, depressed, [these women] probably did not have complete control over their lives or their sexuality.” It not only takes a village to raise a child, it seems, it takes one to kill one as well.

The authors conclude, “Our findings suggest that preventive action, targeting only young, poor, unemployed and single women, or women in pregnancy denial, may not be appropriate.”

I also think we Marxists can conclude something from this study. We can conclude, with Simone de Beauvoir, that “only a balanced, healthy woman, conscious of her responsibilities, is capable of becoming a ‘good mother.'” The same, ceteris paribus (all other things being equal), for the father. And what type of society are these good mothers and fathers most likely to flourish in? Madame de Beauvoir’s suggestion seems correct to me: “A truly socialist ethic – one that seeks justice without restraining liberty, one that imposes responsibilities on individuals but without abolishing individual freedom – will find itself most uncomfortable with problems posed by woman’s condition.”

Photo: iandeth CC 2.0 



Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.