Infant homicide and accidental death in the United States, 1940-2005: ethics and epidemiological classification

Journal of Medical Ethics 37 (7):445-448 (2011)

Potential ethical issues can arise during the process of epidemiological classification. For example, unnatural infant deaths are classified as accidental deaths or homicides. Societal sensitivity to the physical abuse and neglect of children has increased over recent decades. This enhanced sensitivity could impact reported infant homicide rates. Infant homicide and accident mortality rates in boys and girls in the USA from 1940 to 2005 were analysed. In 1940, infant accident mortality rates were over 20 times greater than infant homicide rates in both boys and girls. After about 1980, when the ratio of infant accident mortality rates to infant homicide rates decreased to less than five, and the sum of infant accident and homicide rates became relatively constant, further decreases in infant accident mortality rates were associated with increases in reported infant homicide rates. These findings suggest that the dramatic decline of accidental infant mortality and recent increased societal sensitivity to child abuse may be related to the increased infant homicide rates observed in the USA since 1980 rather than an actual increase in societal violence directed against infants. Ethical consequences of epidemiological classification, involving the principles of beneficence, non-maleficence and justice, are suggested by observed patterns in infant accidental deaths and homicides in the USA from 1940 to 2005
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DOI 10.1136/jme.2010.041053
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