Stressing Motherhood:  How Biology and Social Inequality Foster Maternal Infanticide

Chicago’s nineteenth ward reeked of overripe fruit and kerosene the day Mary Stastch killed her baby. According to the Chicago Tribune on July 29, 1911 the unemployed single mother and recent immigrant from Austria left Cook County Hospital earlier that week and “wandered about Chicago for two days with the baby in her arms, looking for work.” But with the growing labor crisis leaving nearly 250,000 people jobless her search would have been difficult even without a newborn in tow.

As if that wasn’t enough, the following day more than three hundred police descended on the largely immigrant neighborhood around Maxwell Street in what was described as “a day of rioting and wild disorder such has not been seen in Chicago since the garment workers’ strike” the previous year. Wagons were overturned, grocery store windows smashed, and fruit carts doused with fuel in a desperate struggle between peddlers, police, and strike breakers. In the eery silence that followed Mary Stastch quietly strangled her infant. Cradling the limp child in her arms she then carried the body several miles to where it was later discovered, hidden behind a residence on Carroll Avenue.

“Cases of maternal infanticide are gripping,” explains feminist scholar Rebecca Hyman, “because they seem to violate an inherent natural law.” A mother’s affection for her child is thought to be absolute, a fact of evolution in which women have been “endowed with a nurturing maternal instinct.”

Yet, throughout history, from the fictional Medea to the tragic reports of modern times, women have taken the lives of their children under a variety of contexts, whether it is to punish the father, escape from the burden of motherhood, or even to protect a child from what they perceive as a fate worse than death. In this regard humans share yet another feature, albeit a tragic one, with nonhuman animals since females in a variety of species have been observed to abandon, abuse, or even kill their own offspring. To stress the importance of motherhood in human societies today, how can we best understand this behavior so that we can better predict, and prevent, its recurrence?  Read Article

By Eric Michael Johnson
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