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Infanticide: Something New Under the Sun?

by Stephen A. Allen on Aug 1, 1997

An 18-year-girl gives birth at the prom, allegedly suffocates or strangles her baby, leaves the body in a trash can and returns to the dance as if nothing has happened.

The case of Melissa Drexler and her newborn son spurred nationwide discussion. People asked, how could this happen? What would cause an apparently normal young woman to commit such a brutal act?

Some commentators believe they have the answers to these questions. An editorial in the June 11 “The Wall Street Journal” uses Drexler as an example of the “moral chaos” of modern American life: Past social standards of sexual behavior have been replaced by moral relativism; Drexler’s actions are merely one result of years of moral decay.

George Will, in his column in the June 15 “Washington Post,” also described Drexler’s actions as the result of a general decline in sexual morality. In addition, Will placed much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Supreme Court, arguing that the court’s decision in “Roe v. Wade” to legalize abortion “taught Ms. Drexler . . . to regard her newborn baby as disposable trash.”

Whatever other faults or merits these arguments may have, they are both based on dubious historical assumptions.  George Will and “The Wall Street Journal” wrote as if infanticide were a modern development, the result of a recent collapse in American morals. Even a brief look at the historical record, however, reveals that this is not the case.

In the first place, infanticide is hardly new. Some anthropologists, [note that in colonial Massachusetts, infanticide rates reached] approximately one death for every 63,000 people each year. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the murder rate for children under four years of age in the United States was one for 360,000 people. In other words, Massachusetts under Puritan rule had an infanticide rate almost six times higher than that of “decadent” modern America.

But what about more modern developments? Has the infanticide rate in the United States been on the upswing lately? Has the legalization of abortion led more parents to feel they can kill their children with impunity?

Contradicting those who would see a connection between moral decay and a higher infanticide rate, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports tell a different story. In 1994, the FBI counted 257 murder victims under the age of one. This number has remained steady for about the last decade, with a low of 190 in 1985 and a high of 304 in 1991. Infanticides accounted for approximately one-hundredth of one percent of all homicides in 1994, a rate that has remained essentially unchanged for the last three decades. 

What about the contention that the Supreme Court’s decision in “Roe v. Wade” cheapened the lives of newborns?  “Roe v. Wade” was decided in 1973. In 1967, the FBI counted 138 murder victims under the age of one. A decade later, in 1977, there were 174 such victims, an increase of just over 20 percent. In the same decade, however, the overall murder rate rose from 11,114 to 18,033, an increase of just under 40 percent. In other words, during the time when abortion became legal, the sexual revolution flourished and American morality supposedly went down the tubes, the infanticide rate rose at half the speed of the overall murder rate.

Whatever questions may remain unanswered in the Drexler case, this much is clear: History shows that the infanticide rate is not tied to public morality, and that the social and moral changes of the last three decades cannot be blamed for Drexler’s actions. The explanation for why Melissa Drexler allegedly killed her newborn son is more likely to rest within Drexler herself than in the moral state of modern American society.

Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail:]