Canadian Infanticide Legislation, 1948 and 1955: Reflections on the Medicalization/autopoiesis Debate

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article provides a sociological analysis of the discursive interpretations of the criminal law mitigation frameworks underpinning infanticide law in England and Canada. The passage of infanticide legislation by the Canadian Parliament in 1948 and 1955 is described. The account is contrasted with Tony Ward's analysis of the passage of English legislation in 1922 and 1938. The Canadian legislation of 1948 was based on the English Infanticide Act of 1922. Ward claims that his account shows that, despite obvious appearances and the views of sociolegal commentators writing during the 1980s and 1990s, infanticide law is not an example of the medicalization of women's deviance but, if anything, more closely exemplifies law as an autopoietic system of communication which "enslaves" medical concepts, adapting them for its own strictly legal purposes. We argue that, while Ward's critique of the medicalization interpretation of infanticide law is broadly apposite, autopoiesis theory provides an overwrought alternative. This is especially true for the Canadian legislation.

Resume. Cet article donne une analyse sociologique des interpretations discursives des cadres d'attenuation du droit penal qui sont a la base de la legislation en matiere d'infanticide en Angleterre et au Canada. On y decrit l'adoption de la legislation en matiere d'infanticide par le Parlement canadien en 1948 et en 1955. La version fait contraste a l'analyse de Tony Ward sur l'adoption de la legislation anglaise en 1922 et en 1938. La legislation canadienne de 1948 fut basee sur la English Infanticide Act de 1922. M. Ward estime que sa version montre que, malgre des apparences evidentes et des points de vue de commentateurs socio-juridiques ecrits pendant les annees 1980 et 1990, la legislation en la matiere n'est pas un exemple de medicalisation de la deviance feminine, mais au contraire, illustre la legislation en tant que systeme autopoietique de communication qui << asservit >> les concepts medicaux et les adapte pour ses propres besoins strictement juridiques. Nous faisons valoir que, bien que la critique de Ward sur l'interpretation de medicalisation de la legislation en matiere d'infanticide soit juste dans ses grandes lignes, la theorie de l'autopoiese s'avere une alternative tarabiscotee. Ceci est particulierement le cas de la legislation canadienne.


In this paper, we trace the background and passage of Canada's infanticide legislation, passed in 1948 in partial emulation of the English Act of 1922, and the amendment of the Canadian legislation in 1955. We contrast our account of the Canadian developments with Tony Ward's detailed history of the passage of the English Infanticide Act of 1922 and its amendment in 1938 (Ward 1999). Ward offers this history as an important element of a more broadly based challenge to the established interpretation of infanticide law as a clear-cut instance of the medicalization of women's deviance (see, for instance, Comack 1987; Edwards 1984; Scutt 1981; Showalter 1985; Smart 1989; 1992:16-18; and see discussions in Laster 1989; O'Donovan 1984; Osborne 1987; Wilczynksi 1991; 1997). Ward claims that, quite contrary to the medicalization thesis, infanticide law, even in its most psychiatrically informed version, "involved a reconstruction of medical concepts to fit the law" (Ward 1999:174; emphasis in original). He represents his position as "ow[ing] something to Teubner's (1989) 'autopoietic' theory of law" (Ward 1999:174; see Teubner 1988; 1989; 1990; 1993; see also Luhmann 1988; 1985:281-8), although he recognizes the divergences between his account and autopoiesis theory. If Ward is right, it is a telling example of the problems of the medicalization approach to the law/ psychiatry relation. Contemporary infanticide law, which only applies to the biological mother of a victim in the first year of life, and which offers mitigation from a possible murder conviction, seems to link women's deviance to reproductive difference and pathology in the most obvious and unequivocal way. …


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