Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thoughts on Infanticide

I've recently been introduced to "The Rake's Song" by the Decembrists, a ballad narrated in the first person by a very unpleasant character. Here's a link to a transcription of the lyrics (with “Isaiah” misspelled and one or two other minor errors):

The protagonist, an amoral young man, marries at or near the age of 21, fathers four children, and happily watches his wife die in childbirth with the stillborn fourth. Unwilling to be “saddled with three little pests,” he murders the other three, each in a different way. Rejoicing in his freedom, he denies being in any way “haunted.” Thanks to the catchy tune and clever versification, this song is stuck in my head. I keep worrying over the backstory: It’s impossible to pin down a time for the setting. The children’s names have various ethnic origins, not to mention “Dawn,” probably rare before the twentieth century. The marriage apparently occurred in a culture without reliable birth control. In a premodern society, though, it would have been acceptable for a young widower to leave small children at a foundling home or send them to a “baby farm” in the country, where they might easily die with no direct action from him. So why didn’t he do that instead of risking a murder charge? We have to assume his late wife didn’t have any relatives close enough (or at least interested enough) to question the deaths of the children; therefore they wouldn’t have censured him for abandoning them to the care of strangers.

Setting aside the obvious fact that the character is a sociopath, probably the song disturbs me so much because of his blatant loathing for babies in general, whom most people, especially parents, are programmed to regard as cute. I’m also troubled because male animals in the wild, such as lions and our primate relatives, seldom kill young they could have sired; they slaughter the offspring of rival males, a pattern that makes evolutionary sense. Sadly, human parents, of course, do sometimes murder their children. And, historically, they have often been known to “cut their losses” by killing or abandoning infants in certain circumstances, in order to be free to reproduce with more potential success later. This topic is covered in great depth and breadth, regarding both animals and human beings, in MOTHER NATURE, by Sarah Hrdy (yes, that’s how her name is spelled). If environmental circumstances aren’t favorable for animals to raise offspring to adulthood, the young may be killed or allowed to die. When resources are scant or the mother finds herself subject to some threat or stress, a rabbit has the enviable ability to end a pregnancy by re-absorbing embryos into her body. A kangaroo burdened by a joey in her pouch while fleeing from a predator may simply allow the infant to fall out, since she usually has another embryo “in the pipeline” waiting for the cue to start developing. Many hunter-gatherer societies have taboos against keeping twins. In the unlikely chance that a tribal woman gave birth to octuplets, the event would certainly be treated as a miscarriage, not a live birth. Newborns too small or ill to have a reasonable chance of thriving may be abandoned at birth with no blame attached to the mother. Preindustrial cultures, as Hrdy points out, might chastise us for not abandoning the very same infants we praise people for lavishing care on.

Thanks to our culture’s Judeo-Christian roots, we embrace the ideal of treating every child’s life as precious. But suppose we encountered an advanced alien society that didn’t share this value (which, as Hrdy’s book demonstrates, is far from “natural”)? Ancient Rome, the most “civilized” empire of its era, allowed the abandonment of unwanted infants. Heinlein’s adopted Martian, Mike, in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND reveals that Martians expect competition for survival to occur early in life rather than in adulthood. Martians relegate their young to the wilderness to prove their fitness for being allowed to grow up. (That turns out to be the origin of the cute Martian puff-ball creature in Heinlein’s YA novel RED PLANET.) How would we feel about—and deal with—a spacefaring society that practiced such customs?

Margaret L. Carter (


  1. The same as I feel about humans who do the same - absolute horror with absolutely no chance for comprehending their motives. Personally, I would starve to death and gladly be fed to lions if it my own offspring would live.

  2. Another thought: Suppose we encountered a planet of intelligent marsupials. A newborn marsupial is essentially a fetus living outside the uterus; the pouch is a sort of external womb. Such creatures might not classify the infant as a "child" until it becomes developed enough to venture outside the pouch. Its death before that point might be regarded as equivalent to a miscarriage or abortion. They might find our custom of classifying newborn babies as full-fledged family members baffling.

    Hmm, how about the reverse situation? Females of some spider species nourish their newly hatched young by allowing the infants to devour them. An intelligent alien race with that reproductive pattern might have interesting sociological conflicts between old-fashioned females and career-minded mothers who find ways to circumvent the need to let their babies eat them.

    An alien race's biology might render practices that would be appallingly immoral for us normal for them.

    As for the human parents who "cut their losses," I can comprehend their motives intellectually (in some cases) although not emotionally. There's an incident in Terry Pratchett's CARPE JUGULUM when Granny Weatherwax faces that kind of dilemma in her role as midwife. If the mother's labor proceeds to delivery, she will die. Only one can survive, not both the mother and the infant. Granny quietly terminates the baby's life (without consulting either of the parents) on the grounds that the young wife's husband needs her, and she can have other children in the future.

  3. The other topic, infanticide. Ouch. The examples that you brought forth didn't mention one factor that divides us from nature. Theology. A lot of our mores are guided and directed by our belief systems. The aliens that you mentioned follow instincts and their instincts guide their society. We have - supposed to anyway- have risen above pure instinct and have become 'enlightened' by virtue of our theologies. True, the Spartans threw babies of questionable health off of cliffs - but that wasn't a theology of the mind and heart, it was of war and survivial... sensient instinct.

  4. Margaret,

    I cannot recall the name of the novel, much to my chagrin, but someone has written a book with rabbit-like reabsorbtion as a plot point.

    I refer to the ability lightly in Insufficient Mating Material (I think) and also in Knight's Fork.

  5. Michelle's comment raises the question of whether there might be such a thing as an Instinct for Theology.

    Oh, dear. Whole new model of the universe.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  6. Michele: I was trying to imagine aliens who are as "rational" (not instinct-driven) as we suppose ourselves to be, but with different biology. Not only among various Earth cultures but right here in our own country, there are rational and often theologically grounded disagreements on the question of what point in the continuum from conception to birth a new human organism becomes an individual with a "right to life." The notorious bioethicist Peter Singer maintains that even after birth an infant doesn't have an unqualified "right to life"; he advocates allowing (not requiring) euthanasia of severely retarded or deformed newborns. I think he's wrong, of course, but there have been many societies in human history that would have agreed with him. Sarah Hrdy's MOTHER NATURE mentions a disturbing conflict between local medical professionals and American visitors in a German hospital where newborns below a certain weight (around 2 pounds, something like that) were automatically classified as miscarriages and no attempt was made to save them. I forget the date, but it wasn't THAT many decades ago.

  7. The non-attempt to save infants under a certain weight made the 18th Century when we had no choice, no knowledge or technology.
    With advancements comes the responsibility to use it to the betterment of man.

    I mean, if a baby can't come out the 'normal' way, must mother and child die because we 'refuse' to do a Cesarean? It sure was that way back then.

    Our capacity for doing should be weighed with our ability. And yes, I know that blanket statement can open a whole can of worms of the What If game.

    It's just that a mother will grieve for a lost child and if the child can be saved and can grow up to be a healthy individual, then why not? Your example does not say they differentiate between deformed or healthy, just that they were underweight. In the 18th century, it would have been a no-brainer. But hello? we are 2009! Leave the archaic notions behind and embrace what our advancements have gained for us.

    Um... except for cloning people. That is waaay too creepy

  8. I think all forms of assisted reproduction are just a little creepy but most of what I know I learned doing education programs for CREW at the Cincy Zoo. I know more about the sex lives of Sumatran Rhinos that really necessary, and yes, I know someone who collects elephant semen for a living.

    Endangerd specise are one thing, but with people if you can't get pregnant the normal way I think nature is telling you something and you should listen, but that is one of my personal hobby horses.

    I started writing in my late thirties, at the same time by two best friends were driving themselves crazy and into financial ruin trying to get pregnant.

    I though I never wanted kids, but there must have been something in my subconscious because everything I wrote around that time had reproduction as part of the plot. Hybrid, half human half alien kids are a main stay of SF but I just can see them happening naturally so I did a lot of thinking about who would design hybrid kids and why.

    My first novel attempt, which I swear will see the light of day sometime in the future when I learn to write well enough to get the plot tangles right. Had to do with a woman kidnapped by alien terrorists, used as a Guinea pig in a medical lab, and later rescued, not by humans, but by other members of the same alien species. She though she had been used to test bio-weapons against humans but after she is rescued she finds out she is pregnant with a alien-human child.

    These aliens for various reasons have very low birthrates. The terrorist splinter group fears their culture will be overrun by humans because we breed faster. Hybrid children are part of their answer for that. The woman wants an abortion since the baby isn't human. Her rescuers are horrified at the thought of ending a viable pregnancy. Most of the book happens after the baby is born and has to do with the woman coming to terms with whether or not she has sold her humanity to love her son.

    You know fun fluffy reading.