HC Deb 10 February 1876 vol 227 cc138-42

Order for Second Beading read.


, in rising to move that the Bill be now read the second time, said, it was substantially identical with the Infanticide Bill, as amended in Committee last Session. It would be in the recollection of the House that the scope of that Bill was enlarged in Committee. Originally confined to cases in which death was caused by the injuries inflicted by the mother on her child during or immediately after its birth, the scope of the Bill was enlarged in Committee to all cases in which grievous bodily harm was inflicted by the mother on her child during or immediately after its birth. Whether death was caused thereby or not, the name, "Infanticide Bill," no longer, therefore, defined accurately the scope of the Bill, and the wider term "Offences Against the Person," had been adopted as a more appropriate title. The name "Infanticide," moreover, although used by statisticians to denote the murder of a new-born infant by its mother, was, as pointed out by the Capital Punishment Commissioners, unknown to the English law. Infanticide was only one form of murder. It was a matter of doubtful policy to coin a new legal phrase, and it was now no longer necessary, the scope of the Bill having been enlarged. The Bill came before the House supported by a great weight of authority. It was founded on the unanimous recommendations of the Capital Punishment Commissioners. That Commission was presided over by the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond), and amongst the signatures to its recommendations would be found the names of three other Members of the present Cabinet. He might add that amongst the signatures to the recommendations he found the name of a right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Member for Birmingham (Mr. John Bright). The Bill had been read a second time without a division in three successive Sessions—namely, 1873, 1874, and 1875. In 1874 it was sent up to the House of Lords in the form in which it passed the Committee on Homicide, a form of which it was difficult to approve. In 1875 the Bill would have been sent up to the House of Lords in its present form, if it had not been for the unaccountable opposition of the late hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Vance), whose loss as an old and respected Member of that House they all deplored. On the second reading of the Bill last Session, it was supported by the right hon. and learned Recorder, the present Attorney General, the Attorney General of the late Government, and the hon. and learned Members for Durham, Penryn, South Derbyshire, South 'Warwickshire, and he might add, for Beaumaris—subject to certain Amendments which were now embodied in the Bill. He would appeal to these facts as his justification for urging on the second reading of the Bill thus early in the Session. It was important that the House of Lords, and especially the Law Lords, should have ample time to consider the Bill. He hoped that the Bill would do away with the necessity of trying a woman for an offence of which it was impossible to convict her—that it would afford a means of overcoming the technical rule of the necessity of establishing that there was an independent circulation in the child apart from its mother, which had so often led to a defeat of justice—that it would lead to a decrease in the crime of infanti- cide, which was the disgrace of our modern civilization—50 out of 51 murders being, according to Dr. Neilson Hancock, infanticide—while, at the same time, it would guard the sacredness of the lives of infants by enabling the prosecutor to proceed for the major offences of murder or manslaughter, if he thought that he could secure a conviction, and that it would better meet the justice of the case. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Charley.)


said, he strongly objected to the House being called upon to read the Bill a second time, at that early period of the Session. He could not help thinking it somewhat unreasonable that they should be called upon to pass the second reading—that was, to affirm the principle of a measure which had only been delivered that morning, and within 24 hours, or scarcely more, from the introduction of the Bill. What he was anxious to obtain was time for its due consideration, and whatever might be the ultimate event of the measure, so far as Parliament was concerned, it was very desirable, or indeed actually necessary, that the scope of the Bill should be thoroughly understood. Although that was the chief reason by which he was actuated, he had also this further objection to adduce—namely, that he thought any proposed change in the framework of a law which must necessarily be of such great importance, ought to be made—if at all—by the responsible officers of the Crown. So far as he understood the suggested alteration, the Bill proposed to insert in an indictment the word "feloniously," in place of "unlawfully," thus transforming the charge from a misdemeanour into a felony. He must confess that he thought the present law was sufficient for the purpose—as he understood it—in view; and he had strong doubts as to the advisability of anything like piecemeal legislation on such an important subject. He had to remind the House that, in cases of this character, it often happened that a woman, at the very time she was said to have committed the alleged offence, was not always respon- sible for her own actions, and however much he might feel for the preservation of infant life, he thought it was absolutely necessary to take especial care of the position of the unfortunate mother in such eases. In conclusion, he would move the rejection of the Bill.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Wheelhouse.)


trusted that the House would consent to read the Bill a second time without further delay, on the ground that the principle of the measure had been fully discussed and approved last Session. In his opinion it was a most important measure, and one which ought to be passed, as it was founded on principles of humanity and justice. He should therefore support the second reading.


said, the Bill in its present shape was the Bill that was read a third time last Session. He opposed the Bill in its original shape last Session, but certain alterations had been made, and the consequence was, he believed the majority of the legal profession in the House approved the present measure.


said, the Bill, as he understood, was exactly in the same form as the measure which was introduced last Session, except that it had a different title. It appeared to him that the Bill was worthy of support for this reason—that it was designed to remedy a very considerable defect in the law—namely, that under existing Acts, when a woman was indicted for the murder of her child, and the evidence was such that no one could for an instant doubt that a grave crime had been committed, such, for instance, as wounds inflicted upon the body, or a cord round its neck, she might escape according to the law as it now stood, because it could not be clearly proved by medical or other evidence that the child had had an existence apart from the mother. It was to remedy this that the Bill provided that when a woman unlawfully or maliciously inflicted grievous bodily harm upon a child at or immediately after its birth, then although it could not be proved that a separate circulation had been set up in the system of the child, she should be punishable for the offence she had committed. He saw no injustice in that. The object of the Bill was to prevent a criminal from escaping, and he thought the provisions of the Bill for that purpose were so wisely framed that it was entitled to support. The hon. and learned Member for Leeds (Mr. Wheelhouse) seemed to think that this Bill would put in jeopardy a woman who had inflicted injury on her child when she was in a state that rendered her not responsible for her actions. But that could not be, because no Judge would be justified under this Bill in directing a jury to convict, and no jury would be justified in convicting, unless it was clearly proved that the injury was inflicted maliciously. When the Bill was before the House last Session he supported it, because he thought it was a good and useful measure, and for the same reason he should support it now.

Question, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Tuesday next.