Saturday, May 27, 2006

In defence of Infanticide

A friend once told me a story about arguing about abortion with someone she got a hitching lift with. They went up and down, covering all sorts of ground, that's probably familiar to most people who read this blog. The guy thought he was getting somewhere with the argument and said "I just think that birth is a really arbitrary dividing line." an she replied "I agree." Which is when they realised that they probably weren't going to get anywhere.

I thought I'd expand on my previous post on infanticide, and give the people over at Capitalism Great something to do.

The feminist work I find most powerful is almost entirely written by feminist historians. That's probably not that surprising, since history is my passion. What I love about feminist history is it allows us to see women's lives, not as something fixed and inevitable, but something that changes over time. It allows us to explore both agency and oppression.

Linda Gordon's Woman's Boday, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America is a great example of that.

Because of the different interest of men and women in the practice of birth control, differences in birth-control techniques have social significance. Som techniques are more amenable than others to being used independently and even secretly by women; some given full control to men; others are more likely to be used cooperatively[....] For example, a list of the types of birth control might look like this: infanticide; abortion; sterilizing surgery; withdrawal by the male (coitus interruptus); melting suppositories designed to form an impenetrable coating over the cervix, diaphragms caps and other devices which are inserted into the vagina over the cervix and withdrawn after intercourse, intrauterine devices; internal medicines - potions or pills; douching and other forms of action after intercourse designed to kill or drive out the sperm; condoms; and varieties of the rhythm methods, based on calculating the woman's fertile period and abstaining from intercourse during it.
When look at the history of birth control she looks at infanticide as a form of birth control like any other and explores why it is used more commonly in some times and places than others. She shows why in pre-industrial societies infanticide was often the main form of birth control. Women did leave their newborn, and doing so was a matter of survival. As she says "If infanticide is not suitable in today's societies, it is because we have found better methods of birth control, not because we are morally superiod."

I see why women in different times and places used infanticide as a form of birth-control. I don't think it was because they were morally deficient, or because they cared about children any less.

I think it would be a hideous form of birth-control, because you would still have to go through the stress and danger of nine months of pregnancy. Infanticide was also often controlled by men - and regulated according to the economic needs of society. I'm angry for all the women who had to leave their girl babies to die. I'm so glad that I have more choices open to me, and I know that the reason I do is because previous generations women have organised so that I actually have choices when it comes to getting pregnant.

But if a woman feels like she has no other choice but to wrap her baby up in a rubbish bag, I'm still on her side and will not judge her. I think the mother is more important than a new-born baby.

That's not to say it's a good thing - of course I don't. I don't think a woman should ever feel like her only choice is to abandon the baby in a place where it has no hope of survival. I think ensuring every woman has other options is far more important, far more useful, than pointing the finger, and pressing charges against any woman.

I'll leave you with the story of another woman who was charged with killing her baby:
Fifteen-year-old Mary Turlot, for instance, working as a domestic for a well-to-do farm family in Warren County, New York, became pregnant by the son; her pregnancy discovered, she was discharged.


  1. "But if a woman feels like she has no other choice but to wrap her baby up in a rubbish bag, I'm still on her side and will not judge her".

    "Feeling" something does not make it fact. She had choices. At the birth and at the conception and for a period in between. Adopting your logic, anybody who "feels" they had no choice, in any given situation, is beyond culpability.

  2. 'I think the mother is more important than a new-born baby'

    Shudder. This is just heartless and cruel. And I agree with Anna when she says that it is treading on dangerous territory by ranking human worth.

    Both mother and baby are persons demanding care and respect. To side with infanticide as a form of birth control is to highlight the problem of abortion - in the end you are capable of sacrificing a person in order to give "importance" to the mother.

    As a woman who has four children, the thought that children could be abandoned to die makes me sick. Part of womanhood is our reproductive ability, and yes, we should have personal control over it, but not to the point where killing a child is acceptable.

    Evil... just evil.

  3. If you can kill a baby, can you beat a 2 yr old untill they become mentally retarded? or rape a young girl? Where is the line?

    Also, I am seriously concerned about having someone who could look a baby in the eye and, (based on the fact that they are worth more than the baby) kill it, walking around in public.

  4. Trouble I do agree with everything you said. That's why I mentioned emphasising that women feel they have choices, so this doesn't happen. For example, as an international student this woman would probably have had to pay $1,000 for an abortion.

    My statement that the mother is more important than the baby is actually an assumption made in every delivery room in the country.

  5. "Also, I am seriously concerned about having someone who could look a baby in the eye and, (based on the fact that they are worth more than the baby) kill it, walking around in public."

    If you think that's what this woman did, then I don't think you know much about the realities of giving birth, or the conditions under which babies are abandoned

  6. I didn't read this post as an advocacy of infanticide. I read it as a troubling commentary on what happens in a society where women don't have choices.

    This woman probably didn't have $1000 for an abortion. She probably didn't have the money for any medical care. Not all international students are rolling in money, contrary to the current stereotype. She was probably alone, unsupported, and severely depressed -- all conditions that can quite plausibly lead to her committing this desperate act.

    Rather than condemning women who do things like this, I think society as a whole should take a long, hard look at what happens when women don't have the financial and emotional support systems that would enable them to make positive choices. I personally think it's criminal that our government is quite happy to take huge, huge sums of money from international students in tuition fees, but won't support them with subsidized health care. British universities don't do this to their international students. Even US universities, which are hardly bastions of egalitarian pro-feminism, make sure their international students have some kind of health insurance. Why is New Zealand ripping these kids off with their extortionately high tuition bills and then not supporting them once they're here?

  7. Anna in every delivery the mother is considered more important than the child, and her life and health is put ahead of the child's life.

    I'm not defending the right for mother's to kill their babies. I'm saying that women do sometimes abandon their babies, and it happens when people don't feel that they have any other choices, and that moral hand-wringing won't stop it. The only thing that'll stop it is making sure people always fel they have other choices.

  8. Having been in a delivery room four times (each a high risk birth btw) mother _and_ baby are important.

    And having a baby that almost died I can tell you quite certainly that the baby's life is pretty darn well important to the pediatrics team who are on standby in dangerous labours and are the ones called in to resuccitate the baby. The mother has her team of midwives and gynocological specialists, but baby likewise has her team of doctors.

  9. Anonymous6:07 pm

    Maia, hope I'm not intruding but I've read your post and the following comments and have found the dialouge interesting. I definetly agree with you that women should not be judged so harshly... Life is a sacred thing and women generate and nurture life. Best to give the pregnant women power of perogative. Although, my heart does bleed when I hear about all the people willing to adopt, while at the same time so many women are opting for abortion, my thought is that the health of our society is best shown in the way we treat the weakest elements of our society. I figure the strong elements should be advocates for the weak, whether it is the pregnant teenager who lost her job because of the pregnancy or the baby who is neglected and is soon to die. Both people are good examples of human deprevation and uglyness. The teenager and the baby should have the freedom to delight in a long and happy life.

  10. I would probably consider the mother more important than the baby BUT not so much that the mother can just kill the baby. Afterall I think I'm "more important" than a random stranger but I wouldn't just kill them if they were making my life harder (maybe if they seriously tried to kill me).

    As to point 2 I am less disturbed by a mother who has a baby stands up and walks off in a daze. A little more by one who remembers to put it in the rubbish bin. various other factors that I dont know might disturb me more or less. Pending further information I still have reason to be worried.

    I also have just watched a baby being born a few weeks ago so I do know how it works.

  11. Your biggest risk here Maia is that you fall into the trap that the statement you quote from Pat Robertson in your heading can be thrown right at you.

    If a woman is not raped, chose not to use contraception, chose not to have an abortion, chose not to ask for help from government or non-government agencies or individuals, and abandons her new born - then she is culpable in taking a life. It could have been you, or me or anyone else.

    The appropriate response is for people to actually DO something themselves - in other words, help with charities who provide options for women who feel helpless. However, there are those who despicably are murderous or abusive towards their children - abandoning them, unless there is mental illness, comes into that category - no different from the paedophile who cries "I can't help myself".

  12. Anonymous4:46 pm

    Women's rights are very important especially seeing how in many cultures and societies their rights are trampled on. However a women is no more deserving of rights than than her baby (born or unborn)or any other person for that matter. Even if the majority of doctors and delivery rooms view a woman as more important than her baby does that make it so? Hardly. This very reasoning is part of why women's rights have been trampled -- because men felt they were more important and that is the same way society viewed it at the time. Nobody's life is more important than anyone else's regardless of sex, age, nationality, ethnicity (the list goes on and on). We are all equal in value. Therefore to take an innocent life no matter how young or for what reason is morally wrong. If I lost my job and could not afford to put food on the table for my three-year old -- if I "felt" that I had no other choice but to lock him in a room untill he died of dehydration should society feel sorry for me and make exuses for my behavior. What do you think? Its time we started talking about the "choices" and "rights" of our babies. After all they are just as human as all the rest of us.