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On the legal punishment for infanticide

On the legal punishment for infanticide

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Archive Sarah Samuel

Winner bachelor’s thesis prize Dutch law: Sarah Samuel

Prize winner Sarah Samuel (23, now a master’s student of  Law and Labour at UM) took a deep dive into history for her bachelor’s thesis. She combed through hundreds of newspaper articles, legal statistics, parliamentary papers, and issues of the Dutch weekly legal journal Het Weekblad van het Regt to find out why the Dutch public began to think differently about the punishment for infanticide halfway through the nineteenth century.

The killing of infants… It’s quite a dark subject.
“I agree. I actually picked it at random. During a practical in my first year, I had to write a paper based on a section of a law. I had no idea what to write about. Fokke Fernhout, the course coordinator, advised me to open a law book and pick a section at random. I opened the Dutch Criminal Code to section 290: voluntary manslaughter of a child. The paper was limited to part of the content of the legal text. I eventually used my bachelor’s thesis to delve deeper into the subject.

“Section 290 of the Criminal Code states that a biological mother who kills her child at or shortly after birth out of fear that the birth will be discovered can be sentenced to a maximum of six years in prison. The maximum sentence for murder of an infant – section 291 – is nine years. Both of these sentences are less severe than those for ‘ordinary’ murder or manslaughter, implying that they are seen as a separate category. But in the past, before the second half of the nineteenth century, infanticide was punishable by death.”

Did you miss your calling as a historian?                                                                                         
“History was not one of my favourite subjects in secondary school, but I’ve come to appreciate it more and more over the last couple of years. There’s a very close relationship between history and law. Pim Oosterhuis, my supervisor, told me about Delpher, a large online newspaper and magazine archive. It was a wealth of information where I could find hundreds of articles. I started in 1886, when the Dutch Criminal Code was introduced, and went back step by step to Napoleon’s Code Pénal of 1811. This French Penal Code was harsh. Most offences, even minor ones, were punishable by death. People gradually began to call for milder punishment.

“I ultimately focused on 1854, when, before the introduction of the Criminal Code, the punishment for infanticide changed from the death penalty to imprisonment. What role did legal professionals play in this? What role did society play? How was the public involved? What was said about it in court records? I read that people increasingly felt not only horror at the crime of infanticide, but also compassion for the women committing it. They were often maids or seamstresses who lived in their employer’s house and became pregnant, sometimes after being raped. Having a child would put an unmarried woman in danger. She would be cast out by her employer, disowned by her own family, and considered a disgrace. Babies were usually killed in a blind panic.”

What was the most difficult part of the thesis process for you?
“Getting started and making an outline. I wanted to take on way too much. I had to narrow it down considerably, or else it’d have turned into a whole book. I’m proud of what I achieved, especially of my extensive literature research. I knew it would get a passing grade and was hoping for an eight out of ten. Pim even gave it a ten out of ten.

“I did most of my research in two months – I used my summer break for it. The Board of Examiners gave me more time for my thesis because of my epilepsy. I was diagnosed with it in 2018. For years, I’d been suffering from panic attacks, tingling, staring spells, shortness of breath, sudden speech problems. The attacks were brief, but awful. And it was getting worse; sometimes I’d have as many as four severe attacks in a day. It turned out not to be a psychological problem, like my general practitioner initially thought it was, but epilepsy. I’m on medication for it now, but it’s not completely under control yet. And yes, it did affect my studies. I felt stressed and was afraid of passing out, which can actually trigger the attacks. They were often accompanied by vomiting. It’s just about the last thing you want to happen in a lecture hall full of people.”

Every year during the Dies Natalis, special attention is paid to the students who wrote the best bachelor’s and master’s theses. Although the event was cancelled due to COVID-19, 27 lucky students (18 bachelor’s theses and nine master’s theses) were awarded a cash prize of 500 euros and a certificate. Observant selected eight theses. Their stories will be published on this website in the coming weeks.

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