Table of Contents

Brian the Writer

Newborn Homicides

Brian McCorkle

In a country of plenty such as the United States, the killing of newborns still persists. In the United States, the risk of homicide is ten times greater on the day of birth than for any other day in a person’s life.

There is a long history of infanticide on this planet. This has been a matter of public policy: a matter of necessity: a practice of religions. Spartans threw out deformed children as a matter of state practice. Conversely, accusations of infanticide are used to undermine kings, countries, and peoples. The slaughter of the innocents was a fabrication to Blacken Herod's name even more. In the United States allegations of such practices by certain non-Christian countries are presupposed to be factual; a legacy of racial and religion based immigration policies.

As a part of being human, we all believe in our own myths and bigotries. Anyone capable of an honest introspection will discover roots of knowledge based in stereotypes and prejudgment as well as observable and testable facts. We humans, state facts, embellish facts, and justify facts without ever scrutinizing those facts, which in the end may not be so factual after all. We love to cherry pick things that reinforce beliefs and engage in the sin of omission. When challenged, we have visceral reactions and often resort to violence to defend belief over fact.

Group beliefs solidify group actions. In the case of immediate danger, we don't have the time to engage in weighing of facts. Life or death is the immediate concern, overriding notions of correctness. But, we are not doomed to perpetually operate in this mode.

An acquaintance of mine stated, more than once, that Orientals don't place a very high value on life. They are somehow different from us. This person has never interviewed a single Oriental nor has he read any Asian history or literature. It is unclear if this meant murders of asians would not count as murders or other like conclusions.

A friend stated that there were several people in her church who recently adopted Chinese baby girls reasoning that the Chinese kill baby girls. When I asked my friend how she knew this was true, she answered, "Because the people at church say so." When I asked for something definite such as any real research, my friend angrily stated she had enough information because it came from church.

I mentioned to another friend of my discovery that the gender feminist(1) campaign against India about selective abortions was based on misleading presentations of data. The response was that they must be killing the girls after birth. She had not looked at any data to derive this conclusion. In order to defend the original belief, another level of assumption had to be introduced.

Infanticide is fact of human history, human present, and human future. Moses ordered the slaughter of the male little ones (as well as all adult males and non-virgin females)(2). The second issuance of the Commandments allowed firstborn sons to be redeemed from sacrifice(3). Early in the twentieth century, Netsilik mothers killed over half of their new born girls(4).

There is a period of vulnerability for newborns. It takes time before a factor known as cute protects the young. Cuteness is a factor we humans even apply this across species. I once observed a very young rhinoceros prancing around and immediately felt that this was cute. Until cuteness sets in, infants are vulnerable.

Stephen Pinker in How the Mind Works(5) noted the circumstances for infanticide are a lack of resources and that the mother is one who makes the decision. One person told me she couldn't believe a mother would kill her own newborn. We cannot conceive of events that are contrary to our own myths. We have never lived anywhere near the circumstances of hunter, gatherer, and foraging societies that are so dependent on the here and now. Certainly, if a child is born in the midst of a famine, the likelihood of survival (never high to begin with) is greatly diminished.

Some of Pinker's assertions have been corroborated by an eleventh century renaissance man named Su Tungpo. Su was a poet, a painter, and most amazing, a conscientious politician.

In a letter to the chief magistrate of Ochow in 1083(6), Su wrote about hearing of infanticide in Ochow and Yochow from a Wang Tienlin. The story was that poor farmers limited their families to two boys and one girl. The custom was to drown the excess infants.

Su noted that if Wang was aware of a poor mother about to give birth, he would hurry to the home with gifts of clothes and food. If the child were a few days old, the family could not be prevailed upon to part with the child.

Su stated that such a practice was contrary to good Buddhist principles. He proposed enforcement an existing law against intentionally killing ones descendants. Also, county officials would be expected to exhort the rich to donate to poor expectant mothers upon the promise of allowing the child to live.

Su himself founded a Save the Child fund in his home area with the same aim and regularly contributed money.

The translation of this letter was by Lin Yutang. In the introduction Lin stated that Su spoke against the custom killing newborn girls. Su did note that girls were especially disliked, but he did not take sides. One of the anecdotes he mentioned in the letter concerned a boy. He also mentioned one deleterious effect was a large surplus of bachelors.

Another translation of Lin's concerned an official who hired a cook from the capital. There is a mention that a twelfth century writing stated "that in the capital the middle and lower classes preferred to have daughters rather than sons. Every time a girl was born, she was carefully brought up and protected like a jewel(7)." The girls received early training to ensure a good paying job with a wealthy family.

To see the value that families placed on girls in China, read the novel The Dream of the Red Chamber(8). This novel describes a household that is dominated by two women, Princess Ancestress and Madame Phoenix. There were also a great many young women present in this household. The girls were often portrayed as often besting adolescent boy protagonist Chia Pao Yu.

And then the poet Tu Fu (713-770 CE) lamented in "A Meeting"(9)

"If I had know the fate in store for boys,
I would have had my children all girls,
for girls may be married to the neighbors,
But boys are born only to be cut down and buried beneath the grass."

Su Tungpo believed the issue of infanticide was connected to economic circumstance, and he acted accordingly. Modern day advocates against the practice are certain of conspiracy and place the onus on poorer countries.

Pinker has gained some notoriety for proposing to legalize infanticide(10) which is in direct contrast to the advocacies of Su Tungpo. He based his proposal on the idea that females often lose free will. Women are driven to commit newborn homicide. American juries sometimes engage in nullification on the same reasoning or more amazingly on the basis that the murderer being a mother has suffered enough, but this is a bit hard to swallow. Laws have been relaxed in some areas to make it easier for mothers to place newborns in a safe haven, but with limited success.

Of course, most poor persons in the United States are a long way from the precarious existence of foragers. There are economic resources available especially for new mothers that are unattainable in many areas of today's world. So factors of resources should not be a factor in mothers killing their newborns but, the perception of ability to care for a child can weigh heavily in the mind of some. Another overlooked factor is some mothers simply do not want children.

I would prefer the solution of Su to that of Pinker.

Is there any good way to define the practice? How can we know how much and where? Eye witnesses will help define the existence of the practice (yet many claim the Chinese leave daughters on hillsides with no evidence at all). The practice as well as the reason given by the Netsilik was determined by interviewing mothers (one reason was that was that the way it was always done)(11). The murderous consequences to adults was found by interviewing the men.

Population ratios can be useful to look at trends, but by themselves are not useful to determine causes. A 1998 census in Cambodia showed a fair amount of variation between age cohorts, but did track any particular cohort. In the United States, the best source is medical examiners.

There is some data available from the US Center for Disease Control that gives us an idea of infanticide. There are two high points in child homicides during the first year of life. One occurs around eight weeks of age. The other occurs on the day of birth. In fact, "…the homicide rate on the first day of life was at least ten time greater than the rate during any other time of life(12)." One factor that the CDC believes contributes to newborn homicides and neonaticides is the lack of hospitalization at birth. It seems that Su Tungpo was on to something.

The CDC article also felt that it was likely that medical examiners were overlooking neonaticides. It is possible that some identified homicides were really stillbirths, however, the likelihood is that more homicides are misidentified as stillbirths or SIDS. It is true that given soft tissue injuries examiners will give the benefit of cause of death to the mother.

Attitudes and beliefs of the American public will need to be challenged as well. This includes the myth of mother, the idea that the young are truly innocent and must be kept ignorant on that account, and the idea that females are truly victims of everything in the universe and therefore have limited responsibility.

If there is a policy to end infanticide in the world, then it must be honest policy rather than a vehicle for political and pork barrel gain. The realism is that infanticide is not conspiracy by men. In fact, the ideal for alpha males would fewer boy babies.

Before we point our unwavering fingers at others, we need to get our own house in order. If we wish to help those in poorer countries, we will do better to help rather than blame. And we can start here at home to ensure that all pregnant women have access to a hospital.

Neonaticide can be a reasonable strategy for survival in a foraging society. An infant born during a famine has a very low chance of survival, so why spend resources on it?


1. Who Stole Feminism. Christina Hoff Sommers. Touchstone, New York, 1995. I found the concept of gender feminism very helpful.
2. Num. 31:14
3. Exod. 34:20
4. Peter Freuchen's The Book of the Eskimos. Peter Freuchen, World Publishing, Cleveland, 1961. pp 179-180
5. How the Mind Works. Steven Pinker Norton, 1997. pp 443-445
6. The Importance of Understanding. Lin Yutang, World Publishing, Cleveland, 1963. pp 203-206
7. Lin, pp 270-271
8. The Dream of the Red Chamber. Hung Lou Meng, English translation Florence and Isabel McHuugh from German translation by Dr. FRanz Kuhn, Greenwood Press, Westport 1975. First appeared in 1791. Authors are believed to be Tsao Hsueh Chin (first eighty chapters) and Kao Ngoh (final forty chapters).
aka The Story of the Stone and The Red Chamber Dream
9. The White Pony. Robert Payne, Editor. Mentor Book 1960, pp 194-196
10. "Why They Kill Their Newborns." Steven Pinker. New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1997
11. Across Arctic America. Knud Rasmussen, Putnam 1927. pp 226-227
12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Variation in Homocide Risk During Infancy ‑ United States, 1989-1998, MMWR 2002:51:187-189