Sunday, November 09, 2008

Life before birth control: abandoned babies

Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope writes: abandonment is nothing new. The ancient Spartans systematically weeded out weak or deformed infants by leaving them in a chasm (or maybe tossing them into it -- Plutarch doesn't specify). Chronicles and stories from around the world tell of babies and small children set adrift in chests, dropped off in the forest a la Hansel and Gretel, or otherwise exposed -- a few to be found and taken in, the rest to die. Homes for foundlings, as children rescued from abandonment were called, were set up as early as the eighth century. Pope Innocent III, aghast at infanticide rates in 11th-century Rome, ordered the installation of foundling wheels --revolving-door contraptions that enabled an infant to be dropped off anonymously at a convent. As of 1790 the Hotel-Dieu in Paris was receiving more than 7,000 abandoned infants a year (even with subsequent care, death rates ran as high as 75 percent). Records maintained by the New York Foundling Asylum show that 2,457 infants were dropped off there between October 1869 and November 1871.

This was how women, or families, dealt with excess fertility and the shame of unwed motherhood.

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