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The Tragedy of the Unwanted Child: What Ancient Cultures Did Before Abortion

Safe abortion is the modern cure for the ancient heartbreaks of neonaticide and abandonment.

· 12 min read
The Tragedy of the Unwanted Child: What Ancient Cultures Did Before Abortion
Massacre of the Innocents. Wall paintings of the central nave, 14th century. Detail. Mondoñedo Cathedral. Lugo province, Galicia, Spain.

Talk about abortion is dominating the US culture wars, again. A leaked US Supreme Court majority opinion foreshadows the overturning of 1973’s Roe vs. Wade decision protecting a woman’s liberty to terminate a pregnancy without excessive government restriction, sparking joy among anti-abortion campaigners and dread among choice advocates. Anyone naive to the last 50 years of abortion politics might think the sides are concerned with two entirely different phenomena. One advocates a woman’s right to reproductive and bodily autonomy, whereas the other condemns what it considers to be a form of homicide.

Many self-declared “pro-lifers” consider the termination of a pregnancy the moral equivalent of taking a newborn life. Their strategies, including the endless debates over when a fetus becomes viable, seek to blur distinctions between aborting a fetus and killing a newborn child. So much so that few on the pro-choice side welcome discussion about the relationship between abortion and infanticide. I argue here that an understanding of that relationship—drawing on evidence from centuries of history and millennia of evolution—leads to the conclusion that abortion is the most humane alternative to infanticide, adding to the case for safe, legal, accessible abortion for women who need it.


According to infanticide researchers Susan Hatters Friedman and Phillip J. Reznick, “the day during which a person is at greatest risk of homicide is the first day of life.” Neonaticide, the killing of infants soon after birth, might sound like a rare crime committed by the occasional deranged adult, but the reality is more disturbing. In every society, contemporary and historic, for which adequate accounts exist, infants have been killed or abandoned to die. And not just the occasional infant here or there. By some estimates, as many as 10 to 15 percent of newborns throughout history have been killed.

Before the 1970s, scholars usually explained high historic levels of infanticide as somehow serving societies. They posited that the Carthaginian enthusiasm for child sacrifice, Plato’s eugenic advice that inferior Athenian parents “expose” their newborns to the elements, and countless other examples somehow aided social cohesion. And yet humanity’s high levels of neonaticide and infant abandonment long predates the philosophic and religious beliefs that provided cultural cover for infanticide. It long precedes the invention of those religions that now condemn abortion and even the rise of those societies that invented the philosophies and religions. The ancient capacity for infanticide needs a proper explanation that begins with the motives of those individuals who kill or abandon their young.

The individual motives that lead to infanticide come into view when we recognise that the newborn’s own mother is responsible for nearly all neonaticides (killings of infants in the first 72 hours after birth). This is not a peculiarity of human mothering. Mothers of many mammalian species kill or abandon—to certain death—some newborns.

Understanding lion infanticide - Africa Geographic
Lion infanticide: A look into why lions sometimes kill the offspring of their own species.

Infanticide is the kind of behaviour one might expect natural selection to weed out. To understand why it sometimes does the opposite, it is worth a short field trip to the great plains of North America, where rabbit-sized rodents called black-tailed prairie dogs live in vast networks of communal burrows. Mothers invest a lot in their pups, producing nutritious milk and energetically defending them against predators and other breeding females. Between conceiving and bearing a litter, a mother’s prospects for holding her own against other females can dwindle, reducing the chance she will see her pups safely through to independence. When this happens, some mothers cut their losses at birth, abandoning the pups to be consumed by others.

The mother’s decision to cut her losses with pups that probably won’t survive to maturity is economically rational, although it entails neither consciousness nor deliberation. When animal mothers kill or abandon their newborn young, they do so because their current circumstances are so poor that rearing those young will not be worthwhile. They can then immediately start feeding and get a chance to breed again under better conditions. Abandoning a litter in this way can eventually deliver the female more offspring, grand-offspring, great-grand-offspring, and so on, than she would have had by persisting with the original litter.

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, more than any other researcher, built the modern evolutionary understanding of motherhood. Her exceptional book Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection strips away the idea of the boundlessly loving and caring mother, endowed by evolution with instincts to selflessly serve and protect her young. Hrdy builds a nuanced view of mothers as adaptive multi-taskers, balancing their investments in current offspring against their likely future relationships, reproductive opportunities, and social status. That has long included abandonment, neglect, or infanticide when it suited a mother’s evolutionary interests.

Societies that hunt and gather their food provide some insight into what life was probably like for our ancestors throughout prehistory. Anthropological accounts show that more than 90 percent of infanticides in those societies occur either because difficulties in birth or development give the infant little chance of flourishing, or because the mother hasn’t the support she needs to raise another child. The same logic underpins the custom in many traditional societies of killing one, or both, newborn twins if the mother and her helpers cannot give them both a good start in life.

Infanticide cases in 1970s and 1980s Canada fit a similar pattern. Even though young mothers made up only 14 percent of new mothers, they represented 45 percent of the mothers who killed their infants. And while unmarried mothers represented only 13 percent of all new mothers, they committed 60 percent of infanticides. Worldwide, mothers who commit neonaticide tend to be free of psychiatric disorders, young, and unmarried. What distinguishes these mothers is a lack of experience, means, and support, making a birth far from welcome.

Evolutionary theory neatly predicts the observed relationship between maternal age and infanticide. Young mothers, with most of their reproductive future ahead of them, might sometimes be better off by deferring motherhood until they have the support and resources they need to adequately care for and invest in a child. Older mothers, however, will have fewer chances to conceive again, and losing out on the chance to rear the current child will represent a bigger cost to the lifetime fitness of an older mother.

Alternatives to infanticide

Throughout human evolution, infanticide has been the last resort of mothers in untenable or deteriorating circumstances. History confirms that mothers will grasp at any more palatable alternatives, including abandoning an infant in the hope that someone else might raise it. As many as 20 to 40 percent of children born in Rome in the first 300 years of the common era may have been abandoned or “exposed” in public places. There, they might have been claimed by another family and either adopted or enslaved. Those who were not quickly adopted usually died.

From a distance of two millennia, one could look at ancient Roman exposure as an unfathomable dimension of a harsh culture. But infant exposure raised the same moral dilemmas, elicited similar shames and disapproval, and inflicted on parents the same anguish and grief that it might today. Infants selected for exposure were either unhealthy and unlikely to thrive or from families who could not afford to raise another child.

Despite changing public opinion and stronger preventative laws after the Romans adopted Christianity, abandonment remained widespread for centuries, particularly when economic conditions deteriorated. Throughout the Middle Ages, so many newborns were abandoned that many European churches provided drop-off places for mothers to safely leave newborns. In more recent centuries, records kept by parishes, cities, and hospitals tell of millions of babies abandoned in European cities. From 1500 until the middle of the 19th century, for example, between 10 and 40 percent of all babies baptised in Florence were foundlings.

Once found, however, a high proportion of infants were more permanently lost. In some institutions, fewer than one percent survived their first year. Abandoning an infant might not be psychologically the same thing as killing it, but outcomes for the infant were almost identical. Like infanticide, abandonment was a symptom of maternal circumstances. Foundlings came overwhelmingly from mothers who were unmarried, widowed, extremely poor, or domestic servants. Mothers, that is, without the help and financial support of a husband or close relatives and for whom the demands of caring for an infant would not have been compatible with earning a wage or securing a long-term partner.

The circumstances under which mothers abandon their children match the circumstances that contribute to infanticide in traditional societies. Abandonment replaced infanticide in the societies of Europe and elsewhere. While less common in most contemporary societies than at any time in the last two millennia, abandonment still happens, especially when economic or social circumstances deteriorate. Fortunately for foundlings, the survival rate of those who are abandoned at birth is far greater now than it has ever been in the past.

Many shades of mother

Anti-abortion attitudes form part of a broader tension about mothering, polarising “good” mothers who go to any lengths to provide for their children from “bad” mothers who neglect or abandon their offspring. The reality, of course, is far more complicated. Sarah Hrdy’s comprehensive research reveals a continuum in investment between these extremes, with most negotiating the middle ground.

This view places infanticide and abandonment in the context of maternal investment, and like any kind of investment, mothering comes at a cost. Mothers with neither reliable partner nor other support, for example, are less inclined to breastfeed. In impoverished communities with poor sanitation, this can imperil the baby as formula made up with drinking water becomes a recipe for diarrhoea and, often, death. But mothers with a partner who earns a living, or with other familial support, are more likely to breastfeed, making early infant survival less of a lottery. Sometimes, the same women who bottle-fed and lost children to diarrhoea earlier in life choose to breastfeed and form a much closer attachment to subsequent infants when their circumstances improve.

Evolution moulded human mothers into strategic investors, sensitive to each child’s chances of thriving, and attuned to their own projected costs of breastfeeding, protecting, and caring for the child over the coming years. The story of strategic mothering is, in wealthy contemporary societies, a mostly happy one. More infants are born to mothers who can afford to invest in them than at any time in history, or in humanity’s deep pre-historic past. And that’s because women have better, safer ways of ensuring they don’t bear offspring they can’t afford to invest in. One of those ways is safe, legal abortion.

Abortion is the same thing…

Abortion isn’t a modern invention. Botanical abortifacients of variable efficacy were available in many ancient societies. Women in many traditional societies also have ways of aborting a pregnancy. But they are so unsafe that mothers more often find neonaticide a better option. As Hrdy puts it:

Almost all infanticide in traditional societies occurs right after birth, and is conceptually identical to late-stage abortion. Neonaticide is favoured over abortion simply because infanticide is safer for the mother … The situation is reversed for Western medicine. Abortion – especially in early stages of pregnancy – is safer for the mother than giving birth is. No one with other options chooses infanticide.

Safe abortion, then, is the modern cure for the ancient heartbreaks of neonaticide and abandonment. The circumstances that predict abortion rates in contemporary societies are the same as those that led mothers to abandon, neglect, or kill their newborn infants throughout history and deep into humanity’s evolutionary past.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reporting on legal abortion in the USA reveals that, by far, the highest ratio of aborted pregnancies to live births (the abortion ratio) occurs in teenagers. In 2019, the abortion ratio was 873 per 1,000 live births among those younger than 15 and 348 per 1,000 in those 15 to 19. This number declines steadily until the 30–34 age group in which only 132 pregnancies were terminated for every 1,000 live births.

Few 13-year-olds, their whole adult lives ahead of them, wish to become mothers. Girls that young seldom get pregnant in hunter-gatherer societies, where food is hard to come by and it takes longer to accumulate enough body fat to become fertile. Most young teens are psychologically unready to become mothers, and societies now recognise this in age-of-consent laws.

Parental and legal concerns may make termination of pregnancies in children younger than 15 somewhat more acceptable, but that only complements the evolutionary logic that the youngest women have the most to lose from becoming mothers. And the offspring of those that do become mothers suffer far poorer prospects, on average, than the offspring of older mothers, especially those who are in stable relationships or are financially independent.

Just as unmarried mothers are more likely than married mothers to commit infanticide or abandon their offspring, they are also almost nine times more likely to terminate a pregnancy (394 abortions per 1,000 live births) than married women (46 abortions per 1,000 live births). That observation reflects that a single woman is less likely than a partnered woman to have the financial, emotional, and practical support she needs to raise a child.

Before we can talk about abortion law with any degree of sincerity, we need to face the uncomfortable truth that, in all societies, past and present, many pregnancies were, and are, unintended and unwanted. In the USA, almost half of all pregnancies are unintended at the time of conception. In the developing world, mothers who do not want to get pregnant conceive an estimated one-third of all pregnancies, amounting to 75 million unwanted pregnancies each year.

Most unintended pregnancies constitute a calamity, at least for the mother. Especially if she is very young, poor, isolated, in an abusive relationship, or if she already has as many children as she can care for. The best scientific studies of the consequences of being able or unable to obtain an abortion bear this out. Women denied an abortion end up significantly poorer, in worse health, and more likely to be in an abusive relationship than an otherwise identical sample of women who were able to terminate their unwanted pregnancy. Their other children also experienced worse physical, psychological, and relationship development.

In the past, when induced abortions were all illegal, unsafe, and hard to arrange, a much higher proportion of unwanted pregnancies resulted in the infant’s death soon after birth. The availability of safe, legal abortion has prevented many of those deaths. In the USA, for example, neonatal deaths plummeted in the early 1970s as a direct result of the protected abortion rights flowing from Roe vs. Wade.

The availability of abortion also reduces infant abandonment. In Romania, the communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu strenuously opposed abortion and family planning. As a result of this ban, Romanians abandoned a remarkable proportion of children to be raised in institutions. “The State wanted them, the State should raise them” became the refrain as families abandoned newborns in maternity wards, hospitals, or dedicated institutions. When Ceaușescu fell in 1989, the lifting of the abortion ban caused rates of infant abandonment to plunge.

Anti-abortion campaigners overlook the crucial fact that safe and legal abortion provides far and away the most successful solution to the longstanding historic problems of neonaticide, infant abandonment, and neglect. If they are not available legally, women will seek illegal abortions, which are far less safe. Each year, an estimated 68,000 women and girls die and seven million women are treated for complications, many suffering permanent disability, due to illegal abortions.

Controlling sex

The bad news for anti-abortionists is that abortion presents effective society-level prevention for infanticide, infant abandonment, and neglect. But there’s plenty of good news for those genuinely committed to reducing the number of terminated pregnancies. A similar cure exists for abortion. Ample scientific evidence shows that unwanted pregnancies can be prevented via evidence-based sex education and access to reliable contraception.

The Contraceptive CHOICE Project in St Louis, Missouri, illustrates how effectively reliable contraception can prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce abortions. The project recruited 9,256 sexually active women who expressed a wish for reversible contraception. Women received counselling that covered all reversible methods but emphasised that long-acting reversible contraceptives (intrauterine devices and implants) were more effective than methods like the pill or the contraceptive patch. Participants then received their chosen contraceptive at no cost. Follow-up interviews over two to three years then established if each woman had become pregnant or had had an abortion.

Participants in the CHOICE project were dramatically less likely to become pregnant than women of the same demographic makeup in the same region of the USA. There were fewer than one-fifth as many teen births. Abortion rates halved. And by reaching nearly 10,000 at-risk women in a city of over 1.3 million, abortions in the entire city of St Louis dropped by 20 percent. By comparison, abortion rates in demographically similar Kansas City remained stable.

CHOICE is estimated to have prevented 6,794 abortions over three years. Evidence-based and ethical counselling emphasising reliable methods of contraception, together with free reversible contraception of a woman’s chosen type, represents the most effective known way to reduce abortions. Anti-abortion activists should be heralding this study from every Sunday and social media pulpit they command.

And yet, when New York Times journalist Emily Bazelon asked Charmaine Yoest, the peppy then-president of Americans United for Life, about the CHOICE project, Yoest said, “I don’t want to frustrate you, but I’m not going to go there. Because that would be, frankly, carrying water for the other side to allow them to redefine the issue in that way.”

Instead of finding common ground with family planning advocates over a phenomenal intervention that is scientifically shown to reduce unplanned pregnancies and terminations, Yoest and other anti-abortion leaders chose to fuss about the “framing” of the issue and to reinforce the partisan side-taking that so contaminates this issue. If preventing abortions compels such an urgent moral priority for anti-abortion campaigners, why don’t they mobilise their formidable energies to raise funds for family planning and contraception services? Is the American “pro-life” movement’s obsession with slashing support for Planned Parenthood really only about abortion, or could it have something to do with the other services they provide? Like contraception?

The only consistent answer to these questions is that what disturbs most anti-abortion campaigners is not abortion itself, but the sex that causes unwanted pregnancy. That makes the abortion issue and the starring role of sex in the culture wars a far more difficult tangle to untie.

Rob Brooks

Rob Brooks is the Scientia Professor of Evolution at UNSW in Sydney and the author of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers and Algorithmic Matchmakers

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