Updated: Dec 16, 2022
by Richard AIken, MD, PhD
Neonaticide refers to infant homicides that occur within 24 hours after the umbilical cord is cut. The characteristics and causes of neonaticide are very different from those of the homicide of infants older than a day. For most neonaticides the mother is the perpetrator. Conventional theory indicates neonaticidal mothers are more likely than mothers who kill older infants to be younger and single. The pregnancies are often their first. The motivation to kill is usually because the child was unwanted.
However, more recent studies have indicated that a growing proportion of neonaticidal women are married and multiparous. Preventive measures, such as anonymous free delivery of the infant and Safe Haven laws, allowing anonymous legal abandonment of unharmed very young children at designated sites, have been passed by at least 45 of the 50 American states . These measures were shown to somewhat reduce the incidence of neonaticides.
Despite social and institutional changes, neonaticide persists even in the most socially advanced, liberal, and prosperous societies in the world .
Neonaticides may be a form of family planning among women who are often mothers of several children and over 30 years old. Feeling very much alone and, for nearly half of them, depressed, they probably did not have complete control over their lives or their sexuality. Neonaticide thus appears as a solution when an unwanted pregnancy risks creating a family scandal, or leading to the loss of one’s partner or a satisfying lifestyle .
So far, there are no reliable estimates of the dark number of neonaticides .
The legal definition of newborn murder varies from country to country in significant ways. Finnish law, for instance, defines neonaticide as the homicide of a newborn by its mother in a state of physical or mental exhaustion following delivery . Legislation in Finland defines neonaticide as “the homicide of a newborn by its mother in a state of physical or mental exhaustion following delivery”.
In England and Wales, most mothers who are found to have killed their newborns are convicted of infanticide and given probation sentences. This is in contrast to fathers found guilty of killing their infants, who are usually given lengthy prison sentences .
Neonaticide is an ethical dilemma. When does a baby have rights? In the womb? How long after birth – instantly? In a few days or months post-delivery? Is murder of any living human being ever justified ethically?
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