(some anthropological considerations)






William S. Abruzzi







The following issues have been raised in order to get you to think more critically about infanticide and why infanticide would be an acceptable form of family planning among the majority of pre-industrial societies.  It is normal for people in one society to judge the behavior of people in other societies in terms of the moral values of their own society.  This is, in fact, the very definition of ethnocentrism.  However, many issues can be raised regarding a variety of methods of family planning that place the practice of infanticide within a broader anthropological perspective.


1.   Most Americans would consider infanticide to be morally wrong.  However, infanticide is widely practiced throughout the world.  Is infanticide necessarily immoral and, if so, is it universally wrong?  By what criteria do we make that determination, and do those criteria distinguish unambiguously between abortion, which is legal in our society, and infanticide which is not, but which is accepted and practiced in other societies?

2.   Abortion is legal and is accepted by the majority of the American population as morally correct.  Why is abortion an acceptable method of family planning in the U.S., but not infanticide?  To what extent are we, by accepting abortion and rejecting infanticide, defining one method of terminating a human life as morally acceptable while condemning another form as morally unacceptable?  If infanticide is practiced by peoples who do not have access to abortion technology, can they be considered morally wrong for terminating a human life by the best means they have available to them while accepting our method of terminating a life because we possess the technological means to end that life before birth?






Abigail Hayworth, the author of an article titled, "The Baby We Can't Ignore" in Marie Claire (June 2001:72-73) was very upset at the picture to the left.  At the beginning of her article, she states:

"This picture is deeply shocking, but we feel that such contempt for life must be brought to your attention.  A newborn baby lies dead in the street, discarded like a piece of trash to the indifference of passersby.  She is just another heartbreaking victim of China's ruthless one-child policy."



Pro-life advocates would agree with Hayworth, but believe that the abortion of the 19-week-old fetus to the right shows just as much "contempt for life" as does infanticide in China.  What anthropological explanation might there be for why the majority of Americans reject infanticide but accept abortion?




3.   How does the fact that our own society's stand on both the legality and morality of abortion has changed radically in the past 30 years affect our certainty regarding the immorality of infanticide?  Isn't it quite possible that future generations may come to accept infanticide as a reasonable method of family planning, just as we now accept abortion and increasingly accept euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide  --practices which would have resulted in a doctor's losing his or her license to practice medicine a mere 10 years ago?

4.   Steven Pinker, in his article, "Why They Kill Their Newborns", distinguishes between neonaticide and the killing of older children (filicide).  He shows that, while our own society condemns infanticide, we are, in fact, quite tolerant of those who kill newly born children.  He reports that of nearly 300 women charged with neonaticide in the U.S., not one spent more than a night in jail.  The general population was much more willing to deal leniently, for example, with the Grossberg-Peterson case involving the killing of a newborn than they were with the case of Susan Smith, who killed her two sons: one 14 months old, and the other 3 year old.

5.   Our notion that infanticide is committed by disturbed individuals is also not supported by research.  First of all, women who practice neonaticide generally go on to become loving supportive mothers when they do have and raise children (as do mothers who have had abortions), in contrast to those women who kill older children.  Secondly,  as Pinker states, "it's hard to maintain that neonaticide is an illness when we learn that it has been practiced and accepted in most cultures throughout history."  That many societies practice infanticide is clearly illustrated by the articles in the Infanticide packet.

6.   The acceptance of abortion but not infanticide in the U.S. has been justified on the grounds that a baby is alive while a fetus is not.  When does a human life begin?  How do we define life?   In the article referred to above, Steven Pinker discusses how difficult it is to determine when a human organism becomes a person with a right to life.  Conception, birth, the end of the second trimester are all rather arbitrary definition points for when a human organism becomes a person.  Viability is also problematic, given that the human infant cannot survive on its own for several years after its birth and that many infants cannot survive at all without medical intervention, to say nothing of large numbers of the elderly.  Furthermore, infant viability is a matter of degree and is clearly much less developed in humans than in most other mammals.  Given the difficulty of establishing clear objective criteria for when personhood is achieved  --in some societies "personhood" is not conferred until well after birth--  on what grounds do we claim that one point in the human organism's development is more valid and objective (i.e., less arbitrary) for establishing "personhood" and, thus, a right to life than any other point?  If the definition of "personhood" is largely socially determined, to what extent is the criteria used for defining "personhood" in our own society any more objective and valid than that used in other societies?  How does the controversy over when an abortion is acceptably performed in the U.S. affect our understanding of the social basis of our society's definition of when life begins?  What factors determine who is likely to accept Pinker's definition and who is likely to reject it?  How does their stand on the issue reflect their personal interests rather than an objective scientific look at the issue? Furthermore, when we set arbitrary boundaries as our defining points for the beginning of life, to what extent do we inadvertently kill human organisms that develop more quickly than the established norm?  Finally, why is "personhood" used to determine when a human organism is alive rather than some less subjective critria?  If we don't use "doghood" or "cathood" to determine when dogs and cats are alive, are we being logically inconsistent to use "personhood" to determine when humans are alive?  Is there a uniform, objective biological definition for the beginning of life that can be applied systematically to all living organisms, including dogs, cats and humans? 

Most biology textbooks define life as possessing the following characteristics:  Cells, energy, heredity, reproduction and responsiveness to the environment.  All living things are composed of cells.  Even such microscopic unicellular organisms as bacteria are considered alive.  All living things also acquire and use energy to maintain metabolism.  All living organisms also possess DNA organized into genes and chromosomes which form the blueprint for how that organism will develop and grow.  Similarly, all living organisms are potentially capable of reproduction.  Being able to reproduce offspring which share their genetic material, living organisms (unlike non-living matter) are able to cause the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next.  Finally, living organisms are responsive to their environments.  That is, they are affected by their environments and attempt to adapt to those environments.  Are these characteristics, which are presented as distinguishing living organisms in nearly every biology textbook written, less applicable to a fetus than to a baby or a young child, to an invalid or an octogenarian, or for that matter to any human being?  (Would they also apply to both the sperm and the unfertilized egg? The Roman Catholic Church maintains that they do, which is why it opposed artificial birth control.)  If so, then on what logical or scientific grounds is it determined that a baby or a child is alive but not a fetus?  What does this say about our society's support of abortion but not infanticide?  Is it logically consistent?  And if it is not, then why is it so widely accepted?

The definition of when life begins has changed radically in the U.S. during the past 40 years.  To what extent has the definition of when life begins changed because newer definitions serve the changing interests of the individuals or political groups doing the defining?  To what extent is the changing definition of life and the recourse to such concepts as "personhood" a function of the pivotal role that the abortion issue plays in American politics?  Proponents of abortion in the U.S. refer to abortion as a "right" and challenge any qualification on a woman's "right to choose".  Any factor that threatens that "right" is vigorously opposed, including mandatory waiting periods and parental notification laws.  To what extent might the application of an objective interspecies definition of life to humans in general and to fetuses in particular, also be perceived as a threat by those who want to promote abortion as their "right"?  A recent article in The Economist titled "The War That Never Ends" (June 13, 2003) examined the abortion issue in the U.S. at the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.   The article distinguished between the continuing controversy over abortion in the U.S. and its general acceptance in Europe, including in such predominantly Roman Catholic countries as France, Spain and Italy.  The article viewed the problem this way.

Why does abortion remain so much more controversial in America than in the other countries that have legalised it? The fundamental reason is the way the Americans went about legalisation. European countries did so through legislation and, occasionally, referenda. This allowed abortion opponents to vent their objections and legislators to adjust the rules to local tastes. Above all, it gave legalisation the legitimacy of majority support.

Most European countries provide abortion free. But they have also hedged the practice with all sorts of qualifications. They justify abortion on the basis of health rather than rights. Many European countries impose a 12-week limit (America, by contrast, allows abortion up to about 24 weeks and beyond, and many abortion-rights advocates seem to oppose any restrictions.) Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, also points out that the Europeans have been careful to preserve a patina of disapproval. Even in England, the country with the most liberal abortion laws in Europe, women have to get permission from two doctors.

America went down the alternative route of declaring abortion a constitutional right. (The only other country that has done anything comparable is South Africa.) A seven-to-two majority of justices struck down state abortion laws on the grounds that reproductive rights are included in a fundamental right to privacy which—rather like freedom of speech and freedom of religion—is guaranteed by the constitution.

Finally, to what extent does the legalization (and social acceptance of late term abortions (a.k.a. partial-birth abortions) confuse the distinction between abortions and infanticide (see question 17 below)?


The following letters to the editor in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 21, 1996), written in response to the Grossberg-Peterson infanticide killings, illustrate the ambiguous line separating abortion from infanticide.


7.      If a scientific model of population/resource relations developed from careful research predicts that under certain conditions populations will likely adopt behaviors that reduce the number of offspring produced (either through abortion or infanticide), how can we judge people as morally wrong whose behavior fits the predictions of the model?  Doesn't this amount to rejecting science when it disagrees with our beliefs?

8.   Pinker, Fossey, Burke (see Infanticide packet) and others have demonstrated that infanticide is widely practiced throughout the animal kingdom: not just among human populations, but among a diverse variety of animal species.  If infanticidal behavior is practiced by such diverse species as rodents, birds and primates, why should we not expect it to be practiced by humans as well?  Wouldn't it be tantamount to accepting the Human Exemptionist Paradigm (HEP) and to rejecting both the Uniformitarian Principle and the application of Darwinian evolutionary principles to human populations to expect otherwise?  On what scientific basis do we claim that human behavior in this case should be seen as distinct from that of other species?  Shouldn't our evaluation be decided on the basis of empirical research rather than on the a priori application of culturally based moral and political philosophies?

9.   If we state that human infanticide is morally wrong while chimpanzee infanticide is okay, are we simply being anthropocentric?  Where do we draw the line?  Many claim that the human ability to make such a moral choice makes us different from chimps.  To what extent are the moral philosophies that emphasize our differences from (as opposed to our similarities with) the rest of the animal kingdom simply examples of our species-centric world view?

10.   If we take the position that infanticide is acceptable for non-human primates but not for humans, at what point in our evolution do we apply a universalistic condemnation of infanticide?  Was it immoral for Neanderthals to practice infanticide?  What about Homo erectus?  These are both classified as humans.  What about the Australopithecines?  They are considered intermediate between apes and humans. Does the problem of defining humanness and moral responsibility become somewhat like that of the Roman Catholic Church trying to determine which fossil species had a soul?

11.   To what extent is it naïve anthropocentrism to assume, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, that humans are sufficiently different from all other species so as not to be subject to evolutionary principles (biological or social), including those associated with such birth spacing mechanisms as abortion and infanticide?  Does E.O. Wilson's quote that "the behavior of animals is determined mostly by evolution, while humans have options for self-improvement in line with civilized ideals" amount to a rejection of Uniformitarianism and a scientific understanding of human behavior?  Does his comment represent good science, or does it represent the rejection of a materialist scientific approach to the study and evaluation of human behavior in favor of discredited mentalistic explanations for the evolution of human societies? To what extent do such mentalistic explanations of human behavior function as part of the HEP?  Does Wilson's comment represent any less a rejection of a systematic understanding of the causes of human social behavior than John Swanton's statement that "all that is needed to end warfare is the will to do so."  Does Wilson provide any more sophisticated an assessment of human behavior in relation to infanticide than Swanton provided on warfare?

12.   Many people, especially feminists, object to the disproportionate female infanticide that is practiced in many societies.  Would it be more morally acceptable, or even "better," if disproportionately more males were killed, or if the infanticide sex ratios were more equal?  Similarly, should we be morally concerned about the use of amniocentesis and ultrasound in countries such as India and China to determine the sex of a fetus in order to abort female fetuses?  If the cost/benefit considerations of males vs. females in a particular society leads to the differential killing of one sex over another, is that morally wrong, or is it simply a matter of prospective parents making choices which best fit their circumstances?  Is this any different from prospective parents in the U.S. choosing to use contraceptives or to have an abortion based on their circumstances?  How many prospective parents in the U.S. have an ultrasound performed in order to determine if the fetus has serious medical problems, such as spinal meningitis, that might warrant having an abortion?  Do pro-choice principles apply here, or is there a right vs. wrong behavior?  And who determines which behavior is right or wrong?  Might not Western opposition to female infanticide in China, India and elsewhere represent an example of Frank Ferudi's (North Waging Cultural War against South) claim that the West routinely asserts its moral superiority over the rest of the world and systematically attempts to impose Western views of acceptable social behavior on other peoples and societies for whom those views are not necessarily appropriate.  Finally, how do feminists explain those societies which practice disproportionately male infanticide, and do they criticize this inequity as well?

13.     Most people who see infanticide as violence against an innocent child don't view abortion in the same way.   Many other people, however, do view abortion as violence against an innocent child --an "unborn child".   This is precisely why they oppose abortion so passionately.  Why would we be surprised that they respond the way they do?  Is it any different from how Americans in general would respond to the practice of infanticide?  Why do some people see infanticide as violence, but not abortion?  How do we define violence scientifically?  Do people apply their definition consistently?  Does the definition apply to abortion and infanticide equally, or does it not?  While liberals frequently accuse conservatives of being inconsistent in their definition of "pro-life" because they oppose abortion but not the death penalty, conservatives accuse liberals of being inconsistent by opposing the death penalty on the grounds that it is violent and cruel but not opposing abortion on the same grounds?  Also, if either infanticide and/or abortion were defined as "violence", what implications would this have for our understanding of the relationship between gender and violence, given that women are the primary individuals who practice both abortion and infanticide?

14.   To what extent is the attitude in our society towards abortion vs. infanticide a function of material conditions which prevail here but which don't apply elsewhere?  To what extent would the application of family planning programs based on Western notions of what is appropriate succeed or fail when introduced into social situations based on very different infrastructural conditions?  If female infanticide and abortion have a greater regulatory effect on population growth, due to the role of women in reproduction, might not disproportional female infanticide and abortion be considered more adaptive in those societies with high birth rates and, thus, be preferred?  Wouldn't this result in a more rational family planning strategy than one opposing preferential female infanticide and abortion?

15.   There is frequently a difference between what a society defines as morally right and wrong and what is in a specific individual's best interest.  Is it reasonable and consistent with social science research to expect an individual to sacrifice his or her own self-interest simply because the group defines a specific behavior as wrong?  To what extent is the larger society's definition of morality, even as it regards human life (viz. abortion, infanticide, warfare, capital punishment, etc.), a function of existing power relations in that society?  Since the poor and the powerless are rarely in a position to influence, let alone determine, laws and social policy, to what extent do laws and social norms regarding abortion or infanticide reflect class interests?  If in a state-level society, some individuals have greater access to power and authority in defining what is both legally and morally right and wrong, are those individuals who reject the rules and laws established by those in power wrong for doing so?  Were, for example, those women who had abortions in the 1960's morally wrong because the society at large viewed abortions as murder at that time?  Similarly, if an urban-based elite in China decrees that everyone must have only one child while outlawing the use of ultrasound and amniocentesis to determine the sex of a child for purposes of deciding on an abortion, is it wrong for rural Chinese peasants to practice female infanticide in order to assure that they have a male heir who will provide a future for their family?

16.   According to Margaret Talbot (see Infanticide packet), the RU-486 (the abortion pill) is likely to have a major impact on the abortion controversy in the U.S.  Abortion is a highly charged issue in the U.S., with widely distributed opposition. Talbot argues that by making abortion more anonymous and more common at an earlier time in a woman's pregnancy, RU-486 will likely make abortion more common and more socially acceptable.  Talbot is, in essence, discussing the evolution of the social acceptability of a highly controversial behavior. How might our understanding of the increasing social acceptability of abortion in the U.S. help us to understand how infanticide became acceptable in other societies?



17.   Late Term Abortion (a.k.a. Partial Birth Abortion) [technically referred to as "intact dilation and extraction"] is a highly controversial procedure.  It also raises provocative questions regarding the distinction between abortion and infanticide.  If, as the above illustration indicates, the fetus/baby is killed after the majority of its body is removed from the womb, would this procedure be more accurately defined as abortion or infanticide?  Is the fetus/baby alive or not at the time the procedure is performed?  Is it human?  Is its "personhood" (to use Steven Pinker's term) less than that of the baby killed by Grossberg and Peterson?  How would one make such a determination? What criteria would be used?   What anthropological explanation might account for why some Americans define this procedure as infanticide, while others would define it as abortion, and why many Americans believed that Grossberg and Peterson should have been be tried for murder while many others did not?


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Cultural Syllabus



Gender Syllabus