William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice


In seventeenth-century England, single women who killed their newborns were believed to have acted to hide their shame. They were prosecuted under the 1624 Concealment Law and punished by death. This harsh response eventually evolved into a more humane and sympathetic one, as shown by the increasing number of acquittals in the late eighteenth century and by the sharp drop of prosecutions in the late nineteenth century. Then, in 1922, England passed the Infanticide Act, amended in 1938, which provided that a mother who killed her child would be prosecuted for manslaughter, not murder. Today, the great majority of women prosecuted under the English Infanticide Act do not serve prison sentences, but instead, receive counseling. This article considers why attitudes and laws about newborn child murder, or neonaticide, have not similarly evolved in America. Typically, when Americans hear news of a "dumpster baby," we view it as part of a growing epidemic, and rush to judge the mother harshly. Our responses are shaped by emotional reactions of shame, disgust, and anxiety about teen sexuality and motherhood. Curiously, these reactions are similar to those of seventeenth-century England, and as this article argues, will not change until society makes an effort to understand the causes of neonaticide and to deal with its complexities. Literary works provide a great opportunity - through the use of several narrative strategies - to slow society's rush to judge such mothers. This article examines the narratives found in George Eliot's Adam Bede, Jodi Picoult's Plain Truth, and John Pielmeier's Agnes of God. These works offer insight into the complex and contradictory motives of women who kill newborns, and thus provide a model for judgments that are more humane and authentic, judgments that give recognition to a story we typically would rather suppress.