Baby boys born to mothers in Slovakia since the collapse of communism ten years ago are three times more likely to become the victims of infanticide than in the previous decade, ground-breaking new research shows, writes Nick Holdworth.
Research by Bratislava-based biologist and philosopher Peter Sykora into the causes for gender differences in cases where mothers kill their new-born babies, suggests that the risk to boys rises sharply in times of socioeconomic upheaval.
Professor Sykora, who is director of the Centre for European Studies at Comenius University, studied Slovak homicide records from the 1981 to 1997, during which 88 cases of infanticide - the murder of a child by the mother during the first 24 hours of its life - were recorded.
His findings appeared to prove the Trivers-Willard hypothesis of 1973, which predicts that mothers in bad socioeconomic conditions unconsciously prefer daughters over sons. During the 1980s slightly more boys than girls were victims of infanticide.
Professor Sykora said: "Mothers in good socioeconomic situations don't generally kill their children. But when a mother is at risk of doing so these findings suggest that in bad socio-economic conditions some unconscious psychological mechanism somehow perceives this and influences the decision to commit infanticide depending on the gender of the child."
In lay terms the findings support the "pretty woman" syndrome, where poor families in tough times instinctively understand that beautiful daughters are an asset capable of marrying into a wealthier class. Boys are rarely able to improve their situation in this way.
Last March, a steep rise in the number of infanticides in Hungary forced the government to increase the penalty from a maximum two-year prison sentence to mandatory sentences of two to eight years and hospitals in the country have started placing incubators outside their doors to encourage mothers to deposit their unwanted babies safely and anonymously without killing them.