Anti-choice Movement Rhetoric, ‘infanticide’: The Latent Misogyny of Abortion Discourse

In order to effective advocate for women’s rights to access abortions and healthcare, we we have to understand the opposition.  Unfortunately, the local and national rhetoric has taken hold, even the media is using misleading terms. We will be talking a lot about this rhetoric. We want you to be equipped with the tools to respond to these arguments with facts.

Here in MA we’ve been studying what the religious and Republican groups are saying about the ROE Act, a bill that is designed to remove archaic abortion laws and expand and protect abortion access here in MA.  Just like the national rhetoric, one of the common terms misused to describe abortions as infanticide.

What is the actual meaning of infanticide, and why are they using it? This post is written by one of our leadership group, a linguist:

The Latent Misogyny of Abortion Discourse

by Laurie Veninger

Taking a page out of the president’s playbook, MA Republicans and MA Catholic Churches are using an alarming and distinctly sexist and classist term – infanticide – in order to manipulate the public discourse surrounding abortion to encourage Catholics to oppose the proposed bills labeled the Roe Act.

To be clear, abortion is not infanticide. The common, modern definition of infanticide involves the intentional killing of an infant within a year of birth and involves extreme emotional disturbance.

Whether the president, or Republicans in general, even realize why they use the word infanticide when discussing abortion, is up for grabs, but those highly educated and moral men at the helm of Catholicism in MA, ought to know better.  Perhaps they do; perhaps they also know that this particular kind of linguistic misogyny works, and they use it on purpose.

Never mind, that the use of the term infanticide to describe the ROE Act relies on misinformation and peculiar jumps in logic. One might even say the Church is following a long tradition of using lies to brand women as dangerous and crazy – much like the president does on almost a daily basis. This particular kind of linguistic warfare, like any manipulative rhetoric, relies on prejudicial language to appeal to the emotions and selective and specious use of facts to support its argument.

Technically, what these esteemed and not-so-esteemed leaders are talking about is neonaticide (the killing of a newborn), but that word does not immediately conjure the same horrible and scary picture of women that they hope to capitalize upon by the use of the word infanticide.

Again, to be clear, the MA ROE Act condones neither neonaticide nor infanticide – both of which occur after birth and are illegal. Conservatives purposely conflate the term abortion, which does not happen during labor or after birth, with infanticide. Inaccurately deploying terms is a useful technique to paint a biased argument or to cast an individual or group in negative light. By inaccurately conflating terms, they manipulate their intended audience

Linguistically, the word infanticide frequently collocates (occurs or coincides) with words associated with female, such as women and mothers, as well as with words associated with the primitive, such as taboo, ritual, and sacrificial.  Arguably, these words are also associated with the feminine, especially in light of the way women have been cast as witches throughout history.

Indeed, all of the past and current laws concerning infanticide, are used specifically to restrict or punish women, especially those who do not conform to expected gendered norms of wife/mother. It is also nearly all the time associated with madness. Men are not associated with infanticide and, more often than not, it is a crazy and dangerous sort of woman who is. This is the picture conjured by the use of the term and linking it to abortion is intended to sway public opinion by subtly associating it with unnatural women.

In fact, in ancient times around the world, neonaticide, and even infanticide of older infants, was common and very frequently determined by fathers and deemed rational for a variety of reasons. It was not until modern times that the 16th century Poor Laws of England created harsh punishments for women whose babies died –  whether from natural causes or not.

These laws effectively punished women who were sex workers or those of the servant classes who were powerless to the men who impregnated them and refused to acknowledge responsibility. By the 17th century these laws had created criminals of poor and “lewd” women. In the 18th century a more humanitarian approach was suggested by acknowledging that the social and economic pressures on women and the irresponsibility of men were at root. However, that approach ultimately concluded that neonaticide was the result of a mother’s “mental incapacity” which led to “irrational” behavior and “phrenzy.”

By the 19th century it was accepted as fact that a woman’s psychology was closely tied to her biology and made her vulnerable to insanity. Even so, more strict laws began to appear during this time, but only for the unmarried women who were subject to societal scorn. It seems that modern society was not set up to support single mothers and its answer was to severely sanction or punish those women.

By 1922 in England, The Infanticide Act, defined it as the killing of a newborn by its mother, but punished it less than murder due to the fact that the woman was insane. Her ‘criminal lunacy’ was assumed. A woman who rejected her (only) role as mother must be insane; to the Victorian mind there was no other logical conclusion. Despite the fact that now neonaticide is rare, and largely limited to teenage mothers, there is still a prevailing belief that these women must be insane which has resulted in it being deemed a lesser crime than murder. This, of course, is now being changed with draconian state laws seeking to punish women and their doctors with life imprisonment for abortions or even miscarriages.

Ironically, actual neonaticide and infanticide in the modern, western world has sharply declined since the legalization of abortion, and abortion rates are at their lowest since birth control has become widely available and affordable to all women. Yet, conservatives would curtail both abortion and birth control.

That the ‘forced birthers’ still employ the gendered social stereotype of the past coincides with what has become increasingly clear: Republicans and conservative Christians do not care about women or children. If they did, the states with the most restrictive abortion laws, would not have the worst infant and maternal mortality in the United States.  If they did, they would not be demonizing women and instead offer them compassion, empathy and help when faced with social circumstances that make them incapable of caring for another, or when faced with the certain tragedy of learning a longed-for infant might kill them or never have a chance at life due to a fatal fetal anomaly.

These are the facts that are glossed over by their accusations of infanticide, and it is made possible by this lie which allows the president, the Republican party, the Catholic bishops, and Evangelical Christians, to dupe their followers by playing on deep-seated fears and emotions and age-old stereotypes.

Arlie Loughan, “Gender Madness and Crime: the Doctrine of Infanticide,” In Manifest Madness: Mental Incapacity in the Criminal Law (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2012). DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199698592.001.0001

Nicola Goc, Women, Infanticide and the Press 1822-1922: News Narratives in England and Australia (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

Zak Koeske, “Experts: Mothers Who Kill Newborns Fit Sad, Familiar Pattern,” The Chicago Tribune, April 22, 2016.





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