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Mothers Who Kill: Evolutionary Underpinnings and Infanticide Law


  • Portions of this paper were presented at the Royal Australia New Zealand College of Psychiatry (Forensic Section)/Australia New Zealand Academy of Psychiatry, Psychology and the Law meeting, Wellington, New Zealand, November 2011.

Susan Hatters Friedman, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry & Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Connections, 24200 Chagrin Boulevard, Beachwood, Ohio 44122 U.S.A. E-mail:


Women who kill their children present a profound challenge to accepted notions of motherhood and the protection offered by mothers to their children. Historically, societies have varied in the sanctions applied to perpetrators of such acts, across both time and place. Where penalties were once severe and punitive for mothers, in modern times some two dozen nations now have infanticide acts that reduce the penalties for mothers who kill their infants. Embedded within these acts are key criteria that relate (a) only to women who are (b) suffering the hormonal or mood effects of pregnancy/lactation at the time of the offence which is (c) usually restricted to within the first year after delivery. Criticisms of infanticide legislation have largely centered on inherent gender bias, misconceptions about the hormonal basis of postpartum psychiatric disorders, and the nexus and contribution of these disorders to the offending in relation to issues of culpability and sentencing. Important differences between female perpetrators relative to the age of the child victim have also highlighted problems in the implementation of infanticide legislation. For example, women who commit neonaticide (murder during the first day of life) differ substantially from mentally ill mothers who kill older children. However, despite these shortcomings, many nations have in recent years chosen to retain their infanticide acts. This article reviews the central controversies of infanticide legislation in relation to current research and fundamental fairness. Using evolutionary psychology as a theoretical framework to organize this discussion, it is argued that infanticide legislation is at best unnecessary and at worst misapplied, in that it exculpates criminal intent and fails to serve those for whom an infanticide defense might otherwise have been intended. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.