[This is an abbreviated version of a chapter from a forthcoming book, The Edge of Life – Dying, Death and Euthanasia, to be published by Day One, and launched at Pwllheli 2002.]

Deliberately ending the life of a newborn child, or soon after birth, is known as neonatal euthanasia, or infanticide.  It may be accomplished by the direct action of someone, usually one of the parents, perhaps smothering the child with a pillow, or it may be simple neglect, or the refusal to provide food or water, so the child starves, or dehydrates, to death.  The actual means make little difference - either way, a defenceless, newborn child is killed.

Why not infanticide?  Perhaps most people would find this practice morally repugnant, on a par with killing an adult, if a so-called ‘normal’ child is killed.  But the response can be quite different when the child is mentally or physically disabled, especially when severely so.  In one sense, this attitude is a bioethically-consistent response.  Consider abortion - the preborn child who is handicapped has long been an especial target of abortionists.  We already use prenatal screening to detect disabled children in utero, and when detected they are typically aborted.

Furthermore, whereas the Abortion Act 1967 permitted an unborn child to be aborted when there is ‘substantial risk of the child being born seriously handicapped’, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 amended this ground so as to contain ‘no time limit’.  So now, if handicap is suspected - note, not necessarily proved - the abortion can be performed right up to the time of birth.  If this is the law of the land before birth, then why not extend it by a few minutes or hours to include after birth?  If we already destroy children in utero, then why not neonatally?  What morally significant arguments can be raised against infanticide in a society that can already kill its unborn children of forty-weeks’ gestation?

A brief history of infanticide.  Infanticide, in common with many of the other edge-of-life issues, has a long and miserable history.  It has been practised widely, in many societies, over thousands of years, especially for reasons of disability, but also as a means of sex selection, limitation of family size, and the concealment of illicit pregnancies.

For example, it was regularly practised, mainly by means of exposure, by the Greeks, and then by the Romans.  In both Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Politics the practice was supported by arguments that defective and deformed infants should be ‘quietly got rid of’.  Recent studies have shown that the Roman occupiers of Britain used infanticide to limit the native population.  The victims were often girls, which explains the unexpected adult male:female ratio of about 155:100 in Romano-British burial grounds.

However, in spite of the widespread practice of infanticide, it was definitely not the custom of the ancient Jews.  They lived under the creational obligations of Genesis 1:28, ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it ...”’  God repeated this command to Noah and his sons after the flood (Genesis 9:1), and again to Jacob (Genesis 35:11).  Indeed, it became a theme of Old Testament life as fathers reminded their sons of it (Genesis 48:4), and as God fulfilled his promise (Psalm 105:24).  But this was not a call to mere fecundity, the Old Testament saints were required to live family lives that were blameless, honouring parents, while also cherishing and protecting their God-given offspring.  The people of the Old Testament had a proper understanding of children.  From Eve onwards (Genesis 4:1), their conception was regarded as evidence of God’s continuing goodness to those who deserved no such thing.  And the resulting children were regarded as signs of Jehovah’s grace and favour, ‘... children are a reward from him, like arrows...’ and ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them’ (Psalm 127:3-5).

Furthermore, the Jews were firmly and repeatedly barred from participating in the infanticidal practices of their pagan neighbours, ‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech for you must not profane the name of your God.  I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1-5).  Again, during the times of Isaiah, the prophet spoke against those who, ‘... sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags’ (Isaiah 57:5).  The only biblical incident that ever comes close to infanticide was the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham (Genesis 22).  But infanticide has never been God’s intention - on that occasion, he was testing Abraham’s obedience.  Thus, for centuries, the people of God behaved quite differently from their neighbours, and for them, infanticide was regarded as an abomination.  Much later, the Roman historian, Tacitus, was able to write that the Jews, ‘… take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any children.’

The coming of New Testament Christianity continued these Hebrew prohibitions on infanticide.  Nothing was rescinded.  Indeed, the ethical imperatives of the Old Testament were not just maintained in the New Testament, they were considerably strengthened.  For the early Christians, all human life bore the imago Dei and was therefore special.  Human life was God-given and God-taken - those who disposed of newborns and infants broke God’s law and usurped God’s authority.

It was these Christian doctrines, in tandem with the Hippocratic oath, which fashioned the foundations of the noble ethics and practice of early medicine.  The Hippocratic oath expressed a strong respect for all human life and a specific disapproval of abortion, suicide and euthanasia of any sort.  But it was the coming of New Testament Christianity that purged the Graeco-Roman world of infanticide.  In AD 318, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, issued a decree declaring that the slaying of a child by the father was a crime.  By the end of the fourth century, infanticide had become a crime punishable by death.

Modern-day infanticide.  For the next fifteen hundred years or so, infanticide was regarded as a serious crime by most societies.  There have been some notable exceptions.  These include the eighteenth-century Japanese, as well as the twentieth-century !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari desert and the Netsilik Eskimo of Canada’s North-Western Territories.  It is not insignificant that these societies have been largely untouched by the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

In England and Wales, but not Scotland, infanticide has existed as a separate statutory crime since 1922.  That Act was replaced by the 1938 Infanticide Act, which maintained the unlawfulness of infanticide.  So, how many cases of infanticide currently occur in the UK?  Some estimate twenty, others say it must be three times that.  Nobody knows.  No parents or doctors are going to volunteer infanticide as the cause of neonatal death.  The late John Emery, the UK’s pioneering expert on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), considered that one in ten ‘cot deaths’ was due to infanticide, which doctors had failed to recognise.

What happens in the West, also often happens in the East.  The one-child policy of China is well known.  Officials insist on abortions for those who break the rules.  But when a pregnancy is detected too late, then infanticide is the Chinese solution.  In India, female infanticide remains widespread, especially in rural areas.  One recent study focussed on the Kallar caste in Southern India.  Of the 1,200 babies born there in one year, 600 were girls - statistically, that is normal.  But, within days of being born, 570 of those girls were dead - that is abnormal.

Where are the voices raised against infanticide?  Has unbridled abortion rendered us numb and dumb towards infanticide?  Why is there not a worldwide outcry at such practices?  How come the world’s feminists are not up in arms at the mass slaughter of the next generation of the sisterhood?  What have you and I done to recognise, and help to halt, this sinister practice?