HC Deb 24 November 1936 vol 318 cc234-6

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that a woman who wilfully causes the death of her child being under the age of eight years may, under certain conditions, be convicted of infanticide. In moving this Motion, I desire to make it clear that I have no intention what- ever of dealing with the controversial question of the abolition or the non-abolition of the death penalty. The proposed Bill, which is of one Clause, is merely to legalise what has been the consistent practice for nearly 90 years, and to remove the legal anomaly and legal cruelty involved in sentencing a woman to death when it is perfectly well known to everybody, except to the unfortunate prisoner, that there is no intention of that sentence being carried out. During the past 12 months there has been six cases of that character. We have had the spectacle of Judges of the Realm slurring over the dreadful words of the sentence, and of one judge telling the unfortunate prisoner that she need take no notice of the dread sentence he was about to pass upon her.

I submit that in this class of case there is a very real need for doing something more than was done in the Infanticide Act, 1922. I might perhaps, out of the 11 cases which have occurred in recent years, cite two. One was that of a girl of 18, who drowned an illegitimate child of 18 months. The child's father, who was a married man, failed to pay alimony as ordered by the Court, and, eventually the girl—who, according to the medical evidence had only the mentality of a child of 11—was sentenced to death and remained in the condemned cell for 13 days before being reprieved. Another and more recent case is that of a young woman of 26, a domestic servant. There was an illegitimate child; the father failed to pay alimony; she tried to earn money to pay foster-parents, but got behind with the payments, the foster-parents ordered her to remove the child, and she jumped into the river with the child in her arms. The child was drowned, and the mother was saved. Then there was the almost farce of a judicial trial for murder, a verdict of "Guilty" brought in, the sentence of death, and in this case a reprieve, I believe, within 24 hours.

What I and those who support me desire is that the Infanticide Act, 1922, should be repealed, and that it should be replaced by this one-clause Measure, which would so amend the original Act as to make it possible for juries, in circumstances of this kind, to extend and amplify the present limit, which in practice is interpreted by the judges as being about 21 days, so as to cover mothers who commit acts of this kind under extreme stress arising from other causes than the immediate effects of childbirth.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jagger, Mr. Greenwood, Mr. Pethick-Lawrence, Mr. Creech Jones, Mr. Vyvyan Adams, and Mr. Lovat-Fraser.

  1. INFANTICIDE BILL, 50 words