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Infanticide - Prevalence

family history century europe boswell children

Marvin Harris (1977) calls infanticide the most widely used method of population control during much of human history. Infanticide, like abortion, seems to occur in virtually all contemporary tribal societies, although the frequency of infanticide varies considerably. The practice has been described in hunter-gatherer, horticulturist, and agrarian societies (Dickemann 1975), as well as among Australian Aborigines (Cowlishaw 1978) and Eskimos (Chapman 1980). It is relatively infrequent in Africa, probably because of the value of large families to agricultural and pastoral people and the high infant mortality rates (Williamson 1978).

Infanticide has been documented in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Israel, China, and Western Europe. Infanticide, particularly female infanticide, was common among the classical Greeks and Romans. Spartans exposed unfit infants of both sexes. Infanticide was so common in Greece and Rome that the average family was small and seldom had more than one daughter (Boswell 1988).

Infanticide and infant abandonment occurred throughout Europe, despite Christian prohibitions against it. Its frequency increased during the Black Death plague in the fourteenth century and became a widespread problem in the eighteenth century, an age of rapid population growth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, servants were not permitted to marry or have children, forcing many servant girls to kill or abandon their infants, who were often fathered by their masters. In nineteenth-century Europe and in other technologically advanced nations, the introduction of the condom and increased public concern for children began to decrease infanticide rates (Boswell 1988; Langer 1974).

In most twentieth-century nations, the increase of adoption, the spread of contraception, and the legalization of abortion, allowing for safe abortions under medical supervision, increasingly have made infanticide an unnecessary and outdated method of birth control.

Infanticide - Time Of Occurrence [next]

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