Infanticide refers to the killing of infants below the age of 12 months. It is usually committed by the mother who is either unmarried or widow or married or suffering from any sort of mental illness.
The laws in respect to infanticide differs in different countries. For example in United Kingdom, according to Infanticide Act od England, 1938, it is not considered as murder. However, in India there is no separate law for infanticide but it is considered as murder and punishable under section 302 of IPC.
Before charging the mother with murder of her child, it is necessary to prove that the child was born alive. If the child was stillborn or dead-born, then it is not considered as infanticide. According to law birth consists of any part of the living child coming out of the mother’s birth passage.
There are two terms which are also included in infanticide- feticide and neonaticide. Feticide refers to the killing of a fetus at any time prior to birth. Whereas neonaticide refers to the destruction of the child within 4 weeks after birth.
Reasons of Infanticide
In India infanticide is comitted due to following reasons:
- Pregnancy of unmarried woman or widow
- Illegitimate pregnancy
- Pregnancy of a minor girl
- Certain medical or genetic defects in the infant
- Poverty of family
- Religious superstitious beliefs
- Female feticide in certain patriarchal communities where dowry is prevalent
- Male infant is commonly killed by prostitutes
Infanticide is a criminal act and needs evidence to prove that the child was born alive. When the newborn infant is brought to a forensic pathologist for the autopsy, their first task is to determine whether the child was live-born or stillborn or dead-born. According to law every newborn child found dead is born-dead, until the contrary is proved.
A live-born child is the one whose any part has come out of the mother’s birth passage, though it has not breathed or completely born. A stillborn child is an infant which is born after 28 weeks of pregnancy but does not show any signs of life. Whereas a dead-born child is the one which has died in the uterus and shows signs of rigor mortis, maceration and mummification.
One of the most important factor which needs to be established in infanticide is the viability of the child. Viability refers to the maturity attained by the fetus with the normal intrauterine development to lead a separate existence after birth apart from its mother. A child is viable after 210 days or 7 weeks of intrauterine life. In some cases, a child is viable after 180 days but usually it is immature.
Characteristics of a Viable Child
- Crown heel length = 48-52 cm
- Crown rump length = 25-32 cm
- Weight = 2500-3300 gm
- Head is well covered with hair(2-3 cm in length)
- Fine hair shown only on the shoulders
- Vernix caseosa (white cheesy substance made up of sebaceous secretions and epithelial cells) is observed on the skin of flexures of the joint and neck folds
- Meconium is present in large intestine, etc.
An important indication of live birth is the presence of signs of establishment of respiration. When the infant is in the uterus, its lungs are functionless and receive only a limited amount of blood supply necessary for vitality.
While following birth the process of aeration of lungs becomes operative and pulmonary circulation is established. This is confirmed by conducting few examinations on the lungs of the infant. The tests include:
- Plaquet’s test (ratio of lung:body weight in respired infant is 1:35),
- Hydrostatic test (it states that the respired lung floats in water)
- Histological examination of lungs (respired lung tissues show flattened cells with dilation-pavement epithelium whereas unrespired lung tissues shows cuboidal epithelium which looks like parotid glands).
After establishing that the child was born alive the next task is to determine the length of survival. A rough estimate can be conducted by observing:
- Changes in the skin which are time dependent
- Caput succedaneum which is an edematous swelling of the presenting part of the head during delivery. This disappears in about a day to a week after birth,
- Changes in umbilical cord which are observed from birth to 10 days
- Cardiovascular changes and fetal blood changes
There are many reasons for the death of an infant. Death can be natural due immaturity, malformations, diseases of mother, infections, etc. It can also be accidental due to prolonged labor, knots or twists in the cord, prolapse or destruction of cord, etc.
But in criminal cases the infanticide is caused by the act of commission and act of omission.
Act of Commission- This includes the deliberate actions acted in order to kill an infant. The methods used are:- strangulation, smothering, drowning, suffocation, fracture of the skull, poisoning, dislocation of cervical vertebrae, some serious injuries.
Act of Omission– These are the acts of negligence from mother as well as the medical staff. They include- failure to ligate the cut umbilical cord, failure to remove membranes from the face, failure to feed the child, failure to protect from heat and cold, etc.
Other causes may include abandoning the child, which is a crime according to section 317 of IPC.
In cases where infanticide is not proved, then the mother is usually charged with the offence concealment of birth according to section 318 of IPC.
Infanticide is one of the heinous and shameful crime. But proving it is quite a difficult task for forensic pathologists. Therefore careful postmortem examination should be conducted to establish robust evidences of infanticides. Also strict laws and policies should be framed by the government agencies to prevent infanticide.