Filicide, from the Ancient Greeks to a Baby Killed in the Bronx

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Grim taxonomy from a 2007 NIH study.


Grim taxonomy from a 2007 NIH study.

The death of a child in the Bronx on Thursday, reportedly happening when her mother dropped her out a window, occurred less than a mile from where an apparently similar tragedy played out barely two weeks earlier.

Dozens of people will be killed in the city this year, but few will generate the kind of shock and revulsion triggered by these two deaths. That’s true whenever parents are alleged to have killed their children, which is why people know the names Susan Smith and Andrea Yates.

In 2007, after the Yates case was reopened and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity of murder in the drowning her five children in 2001, the National Institutes of Health published a study on filicide. Looking at the broad sweep of Western history, it reveals a shifting attempt by society to deal with that kind of killing and the conflicting feelings of horror and sympathy it elicits:

In ancient GrecoRoman times, a father was allowed to kill his own child without legal repercussions. Despite the later rise of Christianity and its greater respect for life, filicides continued, often perpetrated by the mother, who may have claimed the child accidentally suffocated in bed. … In 16th and 17th centuries, a drastic change in the opinion on child murder occurred in Europe. France and then England established laws that made filicide a crime punishable by death. Both countries also presumed that the mother who was on trial for the crime was guilty until proven innocent, meaning that she was responsible for proving to the court that her child was not the victim of murder.

The tide changed again with the establishment of the Infanticide Acts of 1922 and 1938 in England. These laws recognized the effect that birthing and caring for an infant can have on a mother’s mental health for up to 12 months after the event. These acts outlawed the death penalty as punishment for maternal infanticide, making the punishment similar to that of manslaughter. Several other Western countries have adopted similar laws, with the exception of the United States.

The report also tracked efforts in more recent decades to understand the motives behind filicides. The first systematic attempt came in 1969 from Philip Resnick, who studied more than 100 such killings and grouped them into five categories. One is “altruistic filicide” where “the parent kills the child because it is perceived to be in the best interest of the child,” while “acutely psychotic filicide” is where “the parent, responding to psychosis, kills the child with no other rational motive.” “Accidental filicide” describes cases in which “the parent unintentionally kills the child as a result of abuse.” The meanings of “Unwanted child filicide” and “spousal revenge filicide” are self-evident. “The most common motive in Resnick’s study was altruism,” the NIH article noted.

The facts of both recent cases in the Bronx are still emerging. Even when all that can be known is discovered, it is unlikely that anyone will really understand what happened. But the NIH piece from eight years ago, while exceedingly grim, is worth a read—a reminder that the significance of these crimes reflects not just the tragedy of an ended life but also broader attitudes about parenthood and mental illness.

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