Infanticide, or the murder of a new-born child, is not treated as a
specific crime, but is tried by the same rules as in cases of felonious
homicide. The term is applied technically to those cases in which the
mother kills her child at, or soon after, its birth. She is often in
such a condition of mental anxiety as not to be responsible for her
actions. It is usually committed with the object of concealing delivery,
to hide the fact that the girl has, in popular language, 'strayed
from the paths of virtue.' The child must have had a separate existence.
To constitute 'live birth,' the child must have been alive after its
body was entirely born--that is, entirely outside the maternal
passages--and it must have had an independent circulation, though this
does not imply the severance of the umbilical cord. Every child is held
in law to be born dead until it has been shown to have been born alive.
Killing a child in the act of birth and before it is fully born is not
infanticide, but if before birth injuries are inflicted which result in
death after birth, it is murder. Medical evidence will be called to show
that the child was born alive.
The methods of death usually employed are--(1) Suffocation by the hand
or a cloth. (2) Strangulation with the hands, by a tape or ribbon, or by
the umbilical cord itself. (3) Blows on the head, or dashing the child
against the wall. (4) Drowning by putting it in the privy or in a bucket
of water. (5) Omission: by neglecting to do what is absolutely necessary
for the newly-born child--e.g., not separating the cord; allowing it
to lie under the bed-clothes and be suffocated.
With regard to the question of the maturity of a child, the differences
between a child of six or seven months and one at full term may be
stated as follows:
Between the sixth and seventh month, length of child 10 to 14
inches--that is, the length of the child after the fifth month is about
double the lunar months--weight 1 to 3 pounds; skin, dusky red, covered
with downy hair (lanugo) and sebaceous matter; membrana pupillaris
disappearing; nails not reaching to ends of fingers; meconium at upper
part of large intestine; testes near kidneys; no appearance of
convolutions in brain; points of ossification in four divisions of
At nine months, length of child 18 to 22 inches; weight, 7 to 8 pounds;
skin rosy; lanugo only about shoulders; sebaceous matter on the body;
hair on head about an inch long; testes past inguinal ring; clitoris
covered by the labia; membrana pupillaris disappeared; nails reach to
ends of fingers; meconium at termination of large intestine; points of
ossification in centre of cartilage at lower end of femur, about 1-1/2
to 2-1/2 lines in diameter; umbilicus midway between the ensiform
cartilage and pubis.
Owing to the difficulty of proving that the crime of infanticide has
been committed, the woman may in England be tried for concealment of
birth, and in Scotland for concealment of pregnancy, if she conceal
her pregnancy during the whole time and fail to call for assistance in
the birth. Either of these charges would only be brought against a woman
who had obviously been pregnant, and now the child is missing or its
dead body has been found. It is expected that every pregnant woman
should make provision for the child about to be born, and so should have
talked about it or have made clothes, etc., for it. The punishment for
concealment is imprisonment for any term not exceeding two years. The
charge of concealment is very often alternative to infanticide. To
substantiate the charge, however, it must be proved that there had been
a secret disposition of the dead body of the infant, as well as an
endeavour to conceal its birth.
A woman may be delivered of a child unconsciously, for the contractile
power of the womb is independent of volition. Under an anæsthetic the
uterus acts as energetically as if the patient were in the full
possession of her senses.
Nowadays a woman is rarely hanged for infanticide, and it is a mere
travesty of justice to pass on her the death sentence, well knowing that
it will never be executed.