'This sinister business in babies' - The perils of baby-farming scandals and Infant Life Protection Legislation, 1890-1930

Monday, 5 March, 2012 - 15:00

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For much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the image of baby-farming as an opportunistic and deceitful way to dispose of an unwanted child was a typecast that prevailed in many parts of the world. In South Africa, as elsewhere, practises of baby-farming and ‘baby-farm houses’ became notorious for allegedly wilfully neglecting and murdering infants. While baby-farming was not a specific crime under which someone could be  arraigned for child neglect or abuse, towards the end of the nineteenth century revelations about baby-farming practices became more frequent fanning the idea that this was a  menace for the colonial states to regulate. In addition, at the beginning of the twentieth century, high infant mortality rates and the implicit link to illegitimacy would help to fuel state fears of a burgeoning poor white community across the region of what would soon be the Union of South Africa. These fears were especially heightened in the post-South African War context, with increased economic hardships for whites; increased urbanisation and the high influx of single white women to the towns; increased vulnerability; as well as the increased prevalence of vagrancy, prostitution and ‘miscegenation’. Concerns about baby-farming also were framed around the construction of moral discourses on the threats to “civilisation” which cast Africans and Indians as immoral and ‘primitive,’ and to the degeneration of middle class British morality and respectability. This paper argues that to some extent by the turn of the twentieth century, in the absence of reliable and accessible contraception, women who wished to terminate unpropitious pregnancies resorted to infanticide or baby-farming after failed abortions or due to inaccessible means of procuring an abortion. Indeed, there were very few options – such as foster care, or adoption – available to mothers, or prospective mothers, who sought reprieve from the responsibilities of raising an illegitimate or unwanted child. Another reason for the predicament that these women faced emanated from the lack of adequate child adoption legislation, but this was also connected to the social stigma attached to adoption during this time period. The underlying motivation therefore for the passing of the Infant Life Protection Act in 1907 in the Cape Colony, and in 1909 in the Transvaal Colony, is set amidst the context of allegedly high infant mortality rates, high rates of illegitimacy, and increasing concerns about poor whiteism as reported by the Indigency Commission of 1906-1908.


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