Thursday, September 20, 2007

Can Infanticide Ever Be Rational?

I have been engrossed with feminist sociobiologist/anthropoligist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's book, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, for the past two weeks. I am almost finished, and I recommend this work to anyone fascinated by the intense and complicated relationship that is motherhood. Hrdy does an excellent job dispelling long-lasting myths that mothering is something wholly selfless, passive, and 'natural' to mothers. While she upholds that there is indeed a 'maternal instinct,' she makes clear that however Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and a whole host of evolutionary psychologists have described this instinct, i.e. nurturing, self-sacrificing, passive, and without ambivalence--they were not being 'scientific.' Her research unearths the complicated strategies that mother employ to protect their offspring, the trade offs they have to calculate when features of their social world change, the ambivalence mothers can feel toward newborns, and the immense resources from their own bodies that mothering requires. What is the most shocking, yet impeccably documented aspect of her work, is the high rates of infanticide not only among humans (who are the primates most likely to commit infanticide), but throughout the animal world (see this brief article on Hrdy as well as this one by Carl Zimmer at Discover Magazine).

Hrdy argues that part of the explanation for such high rates of infanticide in nature, at the hands of their mothers, includes: the trade offs that mothers must make between their current offspring and a newborn, their future chances of reproducing and a newborn, and their ability to keep their newborn alive. (When males commit infanticide the reasons are slightly different). The idea here is that mothers are acutely aware of what is required of them to keep their child alive and if they do not have the capacity to do so, they will either abandon it, not feed it adequately, etc. Some species have the ability to abort their fetuses if they sense that the time is not right for rearing a new child (e.g. not enough help, food, protection from predators).

I couldn't help thinking of Hrdy's arguments as I came across this story of an 18 year old volleyball player suffocating her newborn news from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Infanticide is always difficult to come to grips with, it is even more so for me now as a new mother. And yet, Hrdy's work forces us to look at this with far more nuance than will likely happen. This young woman who has done what seems unthinkable to her new baby now, might be an excellent mother when she is older and has more resources at her disposal for handling a new child. She is not simply a sociopath.

I was impressed that the NCAA moved to review its guidelines on pregnancy as a response to this sad event. Surely the reasons why Teri Rhodes made the decision to suffocate her child are more complicated than the worry she could not compete in Volleyball. I won't speculate the reasons that led her to this act, but I imagine that they were many and complicated. Perhaps some of the lessons we can learn from the reality of infanticide--both presently and historically--is that women need maximal freedom over their reproductive lives. They need access to resources to help them plan their births, they need education on how to prevent pregnancy, and they need to be able to talk directly, clearly, and without judgment and condemnation to people about sexuality.

Sadly, the opposite arguments are usually made in these cases for infanticide committed by mothers is seen as evidence of their intense pathology. Dr. Larry S. Milner, however, claims:

Statistically, the United States ranks high on the list of countries whose inhabitants kill their children. For infants under the age of one year, the American homicide rate is 11th in the world, while for ages one through four it is 1st and for ages five through fourteen it is fourth. From 1968 to 1975, infanticide of all ages accounted for almost 3.2% of all reported homicides in the United States.

The 1980's followed similar trends. Whereby overall homicide rates were decreasing in the United States, the rate at which parents were killing their children was increasing, In 1983, over six hundred children were reported killed by their parents, and from 1982-1987, approximately 1.1% of all homicides were children under the age of one year of age. When the homicide of a child was committed by a parent, it was the younger age child who was in the greater danger of being killed, while if the killer was a non-parent, then the victim was generally older.

The characterization of the type of parent that is likely to kill their child has changed little over the years. As far back as the middle ages, the children of the poor "Were by far the most common victims of the parental negligence and despair." Today, infanticide is still most commonly seen in areas of severe poverty.

And just as infanticide was described as a crime that was committed by the mother in medieval times, such a likelihood remains true today. Although men are more likely to murder in general, statistical review of prosecutions show that infanticide is usually committed by the mother. When mothers killed their children, however, the victim was usually a newborn baby or younger infant. Some research shows that for murders of children over the age of one year in the United States, white fathers were the perpetrators 10% more often than white mothers, and black fathers 50% more than black mothers.

Other risk factors can include young maternal age, low level of education and employment, and signs of psychopathology, such as alcoholism, drug abuse or other criminal behavior. The most common method of killing children over the ages has been head trauma, strangulation and drowning. Most of the murders today are committed with the use of the mother's hands, either by strangulation or physical punishment.

The pervasiveness of this requires us to think carefully about what it takes to combat infanticide in our country. Hopefully discussions about how institutions and policies affect women will be part of the discussion, as well as how to get resources to new mothers. Raising children requires a lot more than just the 'nuclear' family!

Finally, what Hrdy's work forces us to ponder is whether or not infanticide is actually a rational practice, even if it is abhorrent. I am sure this last claim should invite lots of debate and discussion, so get to it folks!