EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W042)

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

Location S301
Date and Start Time 13 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Jónína Einarsdóttir (University of Iceland) email
Aaron Denham (Macquarie University) email
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Short Abstract

This panel reconsiders the definitions and theories of infanticide and other forms of end-of-life decision-making in infants within a variety of sociocultural contexts and perspectives. Ultimately, it attempts to clarify anthropological thinking on infanticide and its oft-narrow theorization.

Long Abstract

Anthropology has had somewhat troubled history with infanticide. Many anthropologists who have encountered infanticide practices during fieldwork remain silent (for various reasons), or briefly comment on them as being unproblematic, routine, or expected because of economic and environmental conditions. While researching and representing a sensitive topic like infanticide is challenging, minimized or decontextualized accounts do little to improve understandings. Unfortunately, experience-near accounts and detailed ethnographic descriptions, the very material needed to theorize and enhance understanding of infanticide practices, are rare. Definitions of infanticide are also uncertain. Frequently described as the killing of a newborn or infant, scholars have expanded it to include the killing of children through direct, violent acts, or indirectly through passive forms, such as neglect and the withholding or withdrawing of care. Theoretically, infanticide is framed as an adaptive behavior, pathological act, or as an attempt to restore social order. In some societies, infanticide is an accepted practice and not regarded as murder. In other contexts, medical considerations regarding postpartum complications permit a lesser sentence for infanticide than homicide. The purpose of this panel is to revisit infanticide, broadly defined. Papers that review former anthropological research on infanticide, reconsider the definition of infanticide, offer detailed ethnographic examples, deconstruct or propose innovative theories, and present family experiences and decision-making are welcome. Papers concerning fetal screening and treatments as well as advanced neonatal intensive care, particularly preterm births and end-of-life decisions, are encouraged, as are those addressing definitions and concepts such as beginnings of life and personhood.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Routine Infanticide in the early modern West

Author: Gregory Hanlon (Dalhousie University)  email
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Short Abstract

Baptismal records and church censuses allow historians to spot considerable discrepancies in the sex ratios during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, girls were not always the victims of neo-natal infanticide, depending upon the social and economic contexts of the parents.

Long Abstract

Routine infanticide in the early modern West

Studies of sex-ratio imbalances which chart the incidence of neo-natal infanticide in the developing world today, can be replicated in the baptismal registers and church censuses for Europe before 1800. The universality of the sacrament of baptism, and its rapid conferral in Catholic countries makes it possible to spot considerable discrepancies in the sex ratio. My research, and that of my students on Tuscany and Emilia in Italy, and on Aquitaine in France, shows that pre-baptismal infanticide was probably routine in difficult times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but could victimize either girls or boys depending upon the economic and social context.

Late abortion in Italy: conflicts around the fetus' "life" & "death" in public maternity hospitals

Author: Silvia De Zordo (University of Barcelona)  email
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Short Abstract

This presentation examines health professionals’ experiences and attitudes towards late abortion, and explores how they deal with the medical and moral conflicts raised by women’s choice to interrupt a pregnancy in the second trimester and with the clinical handling of the aborted fetus.

Long Abstract

This paper presents and discusses the results of a qualitative research on health professionals' experiences and attitudes towards abortion and conscientious objection, carried out in 2011 in four public maternity hospitals located in Rome and Milan (Italy). This presentation focuses on health professionals' experiences and attitudes towards late abortion. It explores how health professionals, particularly obstetricians-gynecologists, deal with the medical and moral conflicts raised by women's choice to interrupt a pregnancy in the second trimester and with the clinical handling of the aborted fetus.

The paper explores first health professionals' and particularly obstetrician-gynecologists' representations of the embryo and the fetus, along with their attitudes towards first trimester versus second trimester abortion. It then compares the attitudes of physicians providing abortion services with those of physicians who refuse to provide abortion services in Rome, where there is a very high rate of conscientious objection among gynecologists, and Milan, where there is a much lower rate of conscientious objection. The second part of the paper examines obstetrician-gynecologists' opinions on late abortion, particularly on time limits and on the reanimation and burial of the aborted fetus. The paper's conclusions discuss how health professionals' attitudes towards late abortion and the aborted fetus are affected on the one hand by their appropriation of the current Italian debate on abortion and women's rights and by their individual religious and moral convictions, and, on the other hand, by their clinical training and experience.

Judging newborns' murders in France

Author: Julie Ancian (EHESS)  email
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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.

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.

Towards a social and cultural psychodynamics of infanticide: the spirit child in northern Ghana

Author: Aaron Denham (Macquarie University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper considers the social and cultural psychodynamics of infanticide discourse and practice in Nankani communities, offering observations and theory that traverse the vicissitudes of social structure, symbolic expression, and the psychodynamics of subjective experience.

Long Abstract

Within a rural District in Northern Ghana, community members describe how disabled or chronically ill children, births concurrent with tragic events, or children displaying unusual abilities are "spirit children" sent from the bush to cause misfortune and destroy the family. Upon identification, some spirit children are given a poisonous concoction by family members and die. Too often infanticide accounts offer experience-distant interpretations and theories that fit only economic and sociobiological models, rarely considering the perspectives of family members and their complex decision-making processes. Based upon ethnographic research within Nankani communities, this paper considers the social and cultural psychodynamics of infanticide discourse and practice, offering observations and theory that traverse the vicissitudes of social structure, symbolic expression, and the psychodynamics of subjective experience. Ultimately, while reflecting on the infrequently considered dynamics that mediate Nankani experiences of and responses to childhood abnormality and family misfortune, this paper offers alternative frameworks for thinking about infanticide decision-making and practice.

Infanticide: acts, understandings and outcome

Author: Jónína Einarsdóttir (University of Iceland)  email
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Short Abstract

Classificatory systems for newborns in Biombo region in Guinea-Bissau and high-tech neonatal intensive units, and in particular such unit in Iceland, will be examined. The focus is on the role of experts and laypeople, the legitimacy of the classificatory systems, their perceived accuracy and influence on the society and infants involved.

Long Abstract

The anthropological literature indicates that the attribution of statuses to newborns, such as social membership, personhood or humanness, varies between societies. The same applies to the criteria for achievement. In some societies the importance of the infant's fatherhood has been documented as essential for social membership, while in others a formal naming or a particular ceremony is the very event that gives an infant the respective status. Attribution of humanness can depend on expression of individual personality, human characteristics and a possession of a human soul. The consequences for infants not recognised as humans, persons or members of society may also vary and be crucial for their future. Infants not achieving a required status may be subjected to a particular handling or infanticide. In this presentation the classificatory systems for newborns and their significance for the infants involved will be examined in two distinct social settings. The first setting is Biombo region in Guinea-Bissau where fieldwork was conducted in the 1990s. The second one refers to high-tech neonatal intensive units in general, and in particular one such unit in Iceland. In both settings, experts have the role of assigning the infants to categories however laypeople may influence the outcome. The classifications are contested in both settings, and their accuracy questioned. Yet the legitimacy of the system is generally accepted. Both the systems are ambiguous, and they create tension and anxiety for those engaged in the process, and the classifications attributed to the infants can have serious consequences.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.