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Updated on December 29, 2008
Scanned by Foxtongue.
Scanned by Foxtongue.

Pro-life crusaders speak of an "Abortion Holocaust" in the United States in the years since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion on this country.

But what happens in a world where abortion is illegal? The past gives us clues.

In a world with little birth control and less abortion, infanticide rates jump. In fact, infanticide was so common and accepted throughout most of human history that in many regions it was not even considered a crime until the Victorian era.

Today, infanticide remains a major problem in areas with poor access to birth control and abortion, particularly for girl babies in rural India and China.

Ancient Infanticide

Infanticide was routine in Ancient Greece and Rome. It was particularly common for babies born with any kind of birth defect or other medical problem, and for babies born out of wedlock. Girls were also frequent victims. In Delphi in 200 BC, only 1% of the 6,000 families living in the city had more than one daughter.

Although infanticide became a crime punishable by death in the later Roman Empire (following its conversion to Christianity), at the height of Rome's power historians estimate that 20-40% of all babies were exposed. Many died, others were taken by procurers to be raised and sold into slavery or prostitution.

The Changeling, Henry Fuseli, 1780
The Changeling, Henry Fuseli, 1780

Medieval and Renaissance Infanticide

Although sex-selective infanticide has been comparatively rare in Western society since the rise of Christianity, poverty and the shame of illegitimacy continued to drive high infanticide rates. Infanticide is believed to have been the single most common crime of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For a time during the Italian Renaissance, an estimated 50% of all babies were abandoned to die or be rescued by orphanages or procurers. Although church law prohibited infanticide, legislation was inconsistent at the state level, and prosecution was rare.

Many scholars believe that myths such as those of the changeling were created and spread partly in order to excuse or cover up infanticide. Changelings were believed to be fairy, elf, or troll children left in place of a stolen human child. The legends are characterized by stories of malformed or sickly children with ravenous appetites. Suspected changelings were subjected to "cures" of astonishing cruelty that often left the victim dead, and modern scholars believe that the accusation of changeling was often an excuse for a family to rid itself of unproductive members who consumed scarce resources during hard times.

Her First Born, Robert Reid, 1888.
Her First Born, Robert Reid, 1888.

Victorian Infanticide

Infanticide, generally by suffocation via the practice of "overlaying" or by deliberate abuse and neglect at the hands of "baby farmers," was so common in Victorian times that by the 1860s it was considered to be a crisis. Changes in social conditions had resulted in an explosion of illegitimate births starting around 1750, and by the early Victorian Era, about 1 in 3 babies were estimated to be illegitimate. Many of these babies were killed due to shame or poverty.

As a result of this crisis, the Victorian era was the first to put serious effort into reducing rates of infanticide. Numerous foundling houses were established during this period in an attempt to reduce the problem, and laws were strengthened and often applied for the first time. However, Victorian juries were often reluctant to apply capital punishment to women, so many cases continued to go unpunished or untried.

Female Infanticide in India

Modern Infanticide

In the West, infanticide is now something shocking and appalling. Child abuse is still a serious problem, and results in high mortality rates for infant victims, but it is relatively rare for a mother or father to kill an infant in cold blood simply because he or she isn't wanted.

In other countries, however, infanticide, particularly of female infants, is still a fact of life. In the 19th century, Indian families rarely had more than one daughter. Girl babies were routinely killed at birth by slitting their throats or drowning them in a pit of milk; many others were tossed into the Ganges for the sharks. These practices appalled the British rulers, but continued in secret after they were outlawed.

Female infanticide remains a serious problem in rural India today, while sex-selective abortion is common among the middle and upper classes in urban areas. Between 1991 and 2001, the female-male ratio in India dropped from 945 per 1000 to 927 per 1000. The ratio drops even lower once the first daughter is born, to 759 to 1000 for the second child if the first was a girl, and 719 to 1000 for a third child if the first two were both daughters. In some states, particularly Punjab and Haryana, the rates are even worse.


In times and places where abortion is illegal, babies still die, and often far more callously and cruelly than a fetus at the hands of an abortionist. They may be exposed, suffocated, garroted, beaten, drowned, choked, poisoned, starved, or denied medical care instead of aborted, but they still die.

The sanctity of life is a modern privilege that is possible, in large part, because of easy, legal access to abortion and birth control, which enables most babies to be wanted babies. The surest way to prevent the murder of innocent babies, in the womb or outside, is not to ban abortion, but to encourage easy, legal access to birth control and comprehensive sex education that teaches everybody how to use it.


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    • MammaE profile image


      7 years ago

      Its amazing to me how so many people claim to be 'open minded' and so 'intellegent' but yet they insist on grouping people together in one big lump and labeling them. Talk to a woman who as a young girl had an abortion out of fear....there is regret and sorrow that is carried a life time. And unfortunatly the kill clinics are full of them. I am pro life but I believe the society we live in will never ban abortions so I wish that counseling was required before an abortion is to take place. That way fear wont always be the driving force. And just for the record 'necessary evil' is a load of garbage.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      There is a well known correlation between a rise in contraception use and a rise in abortion.

      Studies and logicical reasoning have shown this relationship. Why wouldn't the idea of "safe sex" increases promiscuity? People become under the impression that sex no longer has consequences which, for many, leaves very little reason not to do it. However couples rarely consider the rate of failure to prevent pregnancy many contraceptives have (condoms are over 17 percent while birth control pills are closer to .5 percent). Regardless of how small the failure rate is, that failure rate exists and as more people are having sex based on the idea of "safe sex", unwanted pregnancies don't decrease the way we would all like them to. And women who conceive while using contraception are even more likely to use abortion as "back-up birth control" than other women facing unplanned pregnancies. It's an unfortunate correlation but it cannot be discounted. Interesting that Planned Parenthood receives profits from contraception education AND abortion and both continue to be on the rise.

      As far as the comment that a very small percentage of pro-lifers are against contraception, I cannot disprove this statement with actual evidence but I would have to disagree. Many pro-life individuals and groups support contraception and many do not. I've met plenty of both.

      I hope you will try to see the merit in this argument instead of immediately dimissing it as "hypocritical." Although evidence cannot yet be called definative, it should certainly not go completely ignored.

    • lynsbabyboy profile image


      7 years ago from turlock ca

      i was placed for adoption as an infant and i deeply fear if abortion was a legal option i would not be here today to make this comment our you aware that sinxe abortion was legalized there has been abortions greater than the single populations of 49 states with so many unable to conceive this is an outrage yes infiticide is wrong but its just another form of abortion!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      As a college student, doing an English essay on the practice of infanticide in ancient Greece, I happened upon this little dialogue (yes, I'm Canadian) and couldn't resist throwing my in 1.8 cents worth in the pot.

      It always amazes me how often people embrace an ideology or a 'side' of an issue without considering whether it is realistic, ethical or morally feasible. What questions were asked in the process of making the decision to be pro-life or pro-choice? Where did the information come from? Is it based on personal or emotional experiences and alliances, and can they really be considered valid reasons?

      One would think that at least part of that decision should be made on the(factual)basis of the consequences the issue causes. Do you even know what they are? Have you looked at all of the angles, or is it just a decision of convenience, based on political correctness or religion?

      As the mother of three children, I find the practice of abortion used as birth control horrific and inexcusable, and yes, I made that decision after a struggle and an extensive search before I had any children. After I gave birth the first time, I finally understood the barbarity and the selfishness, and it sickened me. The description of how abortions are performed was adeptly and accurately described by Mr. Watkins, (this information is readily available from scholarly articles)and I believe that anyone who could condone the mutilation and dismemberment of helpless infants just to rid the mother of an unwanted child needs some serious psychiatric help. And speaking of Psychiatric problems, it is not too difficult to make the link between the acceptance and prevalence of abortion used as birth control, and the actions of the young girl who gave birth to a baby at her prom and then threw it in the garbage. How can we expect our children to understand how this act is somehow different than when one has the professional help of a licensed murderer? (I know I don't) Tell me, did the baby suffer any less?

      On the other hand, you will not see me carrying a placard, joining in a march or judging someone sho has had an abortion. Nor would I even begin to question a choice made for life or death health reasons; however, at the request of the parents, this kind of pregnancy termination can be done with much less trauma to the unborn child than a routine abortion.

      The health issues resulting from abortion are just beginning to be realized; endometriosis, infertility, breast cancer, depression and anxiety disorders; these are just a few of the known problems, and it is likely that there are many more. While I'm aware that there are those of you who will likely find an article or two attempting to discredit these findings--(I've read those too) which of course you are welcome to do--I would also urge you to look at the findings of dedicated researchers who are not connected to the debate, and have no vested interest in providing false information.

      Seeing as I've wasted enough time on an old debate, I'll take my leave and get back to my legitimate studies.

      If nothing else, I hope I've dispelled the myth the Canadians are all liberal, left-wing, pro-choice Socialists. Many of us are not; there are actually some of us who read:-)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i dont see how infanticide differs from abortion, infanticide is the killing of a child either from the reasons of sadism or inconvienience, abortion is almost exactly the same thing just there is (sometimes)no visual of the corpse, or no scream, its basically just snuffing out a child without getting expierience the child outside of the womb.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from USA

      Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a necessary evil.

      My opinion on abortion was set when I was 13 and my aunt became pregnant after surviving leukemia. There was the risk that if her leukemia returned during her pregnancy she would have had to choose between her own life and that of her child, which would not have survived the treatment she needed. In her case, she was lucky - her leukemia remains in remission and she now has a beautiful teenage daughter. But I have since known others who were not so lucky and who did have to make the most horrible decision of their lives. To suggest that they were somehow evil for choosing to save their own life over that of a fetus who had never seen the light of day, who had no family obligations or other loved ones who depended on them, is evil in itself, in my opinion.

      All the fuss about the Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad, for example, has ignored the fact that his mother and father ignored the advice of her doctors to continue with the pregnancy, and instead of a beautiful son, she could very easily have ended up leaving her husband a widower and her four older children motherless. Think they would have made a Super Bowl ad about that? Just because Pam Tebow felt comfortable taking that risk doesn't mean that every other woman should be FORCED to.

    • Cari Jean profile image

      Cari Jean 

      8 years ago from Bismarck, ND

      I have to thank James for responding to this hub in such a factual manner. I also agree that there is no such thing as a "necessary evil."

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      This woman was more than a "single pro-choice individual", as hilarious as it might seem. She was a lawyer for the ACLU and the driving force on the Roe v Wade case.

      I didn't slam your commenter; I said it is demonstrably false what she said, which it is. Very few Americans are opposed to contraception. More than half are now opposed to abortion.

      Anyway, it is killing babies. No woman ever finds out she's pregnant and says "I'm gonna have a fetus!" or "feel the fetus kick." That is all obfuscation. It is alive; then it is dead. Shame Shame.

      But, that's for allowing me to chime in from the other side and for your response.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from USA

      One of the things I love most about you conservatives is how utterly lacking in a sense of irony you are.

      For example, slamming an earlier commenter for her comments about pro-life advocates who are anti-birth control while simultaneously attacking the pro-choice movement on the basis of the beliefs of one single pro-choice individual. It's really kind of hilarious.

      Support for eugenics was quite common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It took Hitler to really drive home to most people how dangerous the concept was. Obviously, there continued and still continue to be some adherents to the notion of eugenics, but to suggest that they make up the majority of the pro-choice movement is as erroneous as claiming that people who oppose all forms of birth control make up the majority of the pro-life movement.

      Population issues attract wackos and extremists of all stripes in general - they always have. In the 19th century it was pretty common for pastors to encourage their flocks to have as many children as possible so the earth wouldn't be overrun by "heathens." There are still undertones of that belief in many religious arguments against abortion - look at the Quiverfull movement and their quest to breed an army for God. White supremacists commonly oppose abortion in America on the grounds that it is contributing to the "genocide of the White Race" and Stalin and Hitler were among many dictators from both sides of the political spectrum who outlawed abortion in hopes of increasing the size of their armies.

      The number of illegal abortions is extremely hard to determine precisely because of their underground nature. I can certainly accept that Pilpel may have inflated the figure for her own political gain; however, I can just as equally accept that they were true figures. Generally speaking, illegal abortions that were botched and resulted in deaths or hospitalizations were the only ones reported in any way, and even many of these were covered up to protect the woman's reputation. Statisticians have to estimate based on the number of reported illegal abortions how many go unreported and it's a very inexact science. One back alley provider (such as the man from Gairo mentioned in this article: ) could send 2/3 of her patients to the emergency room due to her inexpertise, while a doctor privately performing abortions for patients in his practice might have complications among only 1 or 2 percent.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      One of the early leaders of the ACLU fight for abortion—which has now killed 55 million living babies in America—was attorney Harriet Pilpel. She wrote in 1964 that abortion was needed to discourage "births among low income groups" so we can breed a "better human race." It is now admitted that Pilpel used highly inflated numbers of "back alley abortions" and deaths from them, to sway public opinion. She dismissed pro-life persons as "intellectual inferiors." There was also racism involved in the her views and those of her colleagues.

      In 1965 she claimed over one million illegal abortions were performed each year in America resulting in 8,000 deaths. Research shows that the real numbers of illegal abortions averaged 124,500 per year, and 197 deaths—meaning these figures were inflated by 700%.

      These numbers you quoted have been definitively proven false and are admitted to be false by those who propagated them. There were 39 deaths from illegal abortions in 1972.

      There is no such thing as a "necessary evil." What a thing to say.

      In the last 30 years 5,000 children under 5 have been killed by their mothers in America. It is WIDELY KNOWN that this is the result of mental illness. To say this justifies 55 million killings is shameful.

      Abortion is a big business. Planned Parenthood reported $104,000,000 in earnings from abortions in 2004. "In the second trimester, the kindly doctor uses forceps to pull the baby apart inside the uterus, bringing it out piece by piece, throwing the pieces in a pan. In the third trimester, the doctor pulls out the baby's legs, arms and torso—everything but the head. The baby's little fingers are clasping and unclasping and its feet are kicking. Then the doctor jabs the baby in the back of the head with scissors. The baby jerks and flinches. A suction tube sucks the baby's brains and finally, the brainless head is removed." (From testimony before Congress by a former abortion nurse, Brenda Pratt Shafer.) Does this sound humane to you? And they won't even anesthetize the poor babies.

      So one evil justifies another?

      Your commenter claims falsely that "hypocritical" pro-lifers are against contraception. Everybody knows that is not true. A very small percentage of Pro-Lifers are against condoms or birth control pills. How appropriate that she adds humans are just monkeys with big brains. She can speak for herself because that is idiocy.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from USA

      "But one thing that bothers me about so many pro-lifers is that they demand the baby be born, and then wash their hands of the baby and the mother. Why force a women to birth a baby and then abandon her?"

      Chef Jeff, this is ahuge, huge issue for me, too. Unwanted pregnancies are much, much more likely to end in either abortion or infanticide. If we remove the option for one, the other increases, yet so many pro-life supporters want to outlaw abortion without providing increased financial or emotional support to the women, as if there's some magic button that goes off when the baby is born and all her reasons for not wanting it or feeling ready for it will disappear. It's asking for trouble.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from USA

      hot dorkage, thanks for reading! I didn't know that about the Amazonian tribe. I suppose it makes sense as a form of population control, but ouch. Nowadays, when we can control our fertility more effectively and when child mortality from diseases and other natural causes is so low, that kind of choice is so, so hard to fathom.

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 

      10 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      Thanks for stating the correct view that even if abortions are made illegal that will not stop them from occurring.  I have been arguing that very point for years, but it often gets overlooked.

      I am old enough to remember when yooung girls faced the wrath of family, the loss of friends, when she became pregnant.  It was a sad sight. 

      But abortions happened centuries and even millenia before Roe vs. Wade.  I mentioned on another hub that in ancient Rome a certain plant that caused abortion went extinct because of all the unwanted pregnancies in Roman times.

      I knew one old woman where I used to live who confessed she had smothered her baby daughter and buried her under the rock they used for a back door step.  She only told about it because after some repairs the crushed skeleton of an infant was found there.

      Infanticide was not at all uncommon, and the babies killed were not always outwardly "deformed".  Sometimes mothers just couldn't feed their babies.

      Wasn't Moses sent off on what would have been a death trip down the Nile?  The Bible tells it a bit differently, but there was no reason Moses should have been expected to live, since there was no obligation on the part of anyone to save him from the river.

      In the times of famine people ate the young to stay alive.  This was documented in church courts when they found people guilty of canibalism.

      But one thing that bothers me about so many pro-lifers is that they demand the baby be born, and then wash their hands of the baby and the mother.  Why force a women to birth a baby and then abandon her?  If life starts at conception, and people want the baby to live, does the responsibility for that child end at birth?

      I am basically against abortion used as birth control.  But, I do recognize that in cases of safety of the mother, rape and incest, decisions must be made that might include abortion.

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 

      10 years ago from Oregon, USA

      I've been thru this thinking and I knew that in past societies infanticide was rampant. You can add to this hub the routine practice of infantiicide among certain Amazonian tribe -- they do it after 2 children for the "good" of the family. Here is how that works, if a couple has a third baby before the first two are able to run fast, the third child is routinely sacrificed because it is considered a danger to them all when they have to run and hide from the evil one (white people). When they run, the male takes the larger child and the female takes the smaller. This ban is lifted when their oldest child becomes big enough to run fast for him/herself, it is cause for celebration. I see infanticide and abortion as essentially the same thing, what difference does it make whether it is breathing or not when you kill it? What's hypocritical is these pro-choicers who think abortion is a solution however unideal it is, but who cringe in horror at infanticide. What's also hypocritical is the pro-lifers who are also anti birth control. Infants of many species just don't have a great survival rate and our human species just confirms that. At the bottom of it all we are just monkeys with big bulging brains.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from USA

      jim10, most societies have had some form of birth control, even if only breastfeeding and "rhythm," but for most of history it has been unreliable, and frequently prohibited by religious beliefs. It's ironic, in a sad sort of way, since most of those same religions preached the sanctity of life, yet unwanted pregnancies are significantly more likely to end in abortion or infanticide. Religious leaders evidently have far more faith in human willpower than I do, but with an estimated 10-15% of all babies ever born killed by infanticide, I feel fairly justified in my cynicism.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from USA

      Adam B, personally, I am pro-choice, but anti-abortion. Like the majority of pro-choicers, I see legal abortion as a necessary evil, partly for the reasons laid out in this hub.

      If legal, safe abortion is not an option, that does not mean abortion is not an option, it means it will be performed in unregulated, often unsanitary circumstances. Prior to Roe v Wade, an estimated 1.2 million women had abortions every year, many self-performed, compared to 1.4 million today. Of those 1.2 million, at least 5,000 died as a result of the procedure, and an unknown number were maimed or involuntarily sterilized. Today, you are statistically more likely to die from a penicillin shot than an abortion.

      Moreover, as this hub discussed, in societies where abortion is restricted, infanticide is often a serious problem.

      Personally, I think the only solution to the problems of infanticide and abortion is improving birth control access and education. (Both birth control education and education in general, since more educated societies are less likely to devalue women, as India and China do.) They will never disappear completely, but the fewer unwanted pregnancies occur, the fewer babies will be killed by abortion or infanticide.

    • jim10 profile image


      10 years ago from ma

      I have heard of babies being killed because of deformities in the past. But, for a perfectly normal baby that just wasn't wanted this is very disturbing. But, I guess a lot of history can be considered disturbing. Birth control seems like a much better solution to the problem. I thought that the Egyptians actually had various forms of birth control. Why couldn't anyone else in history come up with any? I guess they weren't nearly as modern as they thought they were.

    • profile image

      Adam B 

      10 years ago

      This is a well written hub and lends information many are unaware of.  I don't gather your view of abortion from the article and I will not asume you are one way or another.  The killings of these babies back in ancient times and up until today are horrific and appaling.  I am pro-life myslef, but I am not one of those fanatics camping out at abortion clinics and protesting in the street.  I simply see things as; the baby did nothing wrong in their short life, they were created and living from the moment the egg and sperm are joined.  Why do we have to discount that the baby, no matter how small it is, is an actual living person / individual.  Is it the baby's fault that the parent doesn't want them?  Is it the baby's fault what gender it is?  No, so why would anyone want to kill it?  It is an innocent baby.


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