Accepted paper:

Judging newborns' murders in France


Julie Ancian (EHESS)

Paper short abstract:

The judicial procedure contributes to the production of a story that emphasizes a psychopathological reading of the neonaticide; it neglects the social constraints and biographical events that affect the control of their fertility by women, thus biasing the understanding of newborns' murders.

Paper long abstract:

The term infanticide covers diverse realities too long understood in an undifferentiated way. Among them, neonaticide - the murder of a newborn on the day of its birth - is sharply distinguishable from other child murders: committed mostly by mothers, it always occurs in a context of unwanted pregnancy and beyond any clearly recognizable mental pathology. Social reaction expressed in connection with highly publicized trials, oscillates between severity and indulgence, reflecting uncertainty about the meaning of this act: the French penal code describes a deliberate infringement on life when facts rather suggest a violent refusal to give birth. Neonaticides constitute an enlightening case to understand the ways of dealing with deviance when it takes place in the field of procreation. Social sciences have to question the mainstream representation, which tends to pathologize neonaticidal women and conceal problems linked to the difficult control of fertility. Based on a qualitative research conducted among criminal justice professionals in France, this paper examines manners of judging neonaticidal affairs; it argues that the use of categories of normal and pathological applied to motherhood, particularly through the focus on the "denial of pregnancy", postpones any prospect of a better understanding. The boundaries of humanity are continually displaced by new technologies, redefining the concept of "personhood". Faced with these changes, analyzing the judicial representation of neonaticides may contribute to the reflection about norms in procreation, which seem to have slowly evolved since access to contraception and abortion was gained more than thirty years ago.

panel W042
Uncertain beginnings: rethinking infanticide and end of life decision-making in infants