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Durham University

Durham Law School

Staff profile

Publication details for Dr Camilla Pickles

du Toit-Prinsloo, L Pickles, C , Smith, Z Jordaan, J & Saayman, G (2016). The Medico-legal Investigation of Abandoned Fetuses and Newborns – A Review of Cases Admitted to the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory, South Africa. International Journal of Legal Medicine 130(2): 569-574.

Author(s) from Durham


There is a dearth of literature on the extent of fetal or newborn abandonment or “dumping” and the medico-legal investigation procedures these cases require. This is despite the fact that these occurrences are a worldwide phenomenon and by definition involve criminal law concerns such as illegal abortion, concealment of birth, murder, or neonaticide, depending on the country concerned. This article contributes to current literature in both respects and provides a retrospective case audit for the period 2004–2008 pertaining to all abandoned newborns and fetuses admitted to the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory (PMLL) in South Africa. Demographic details, scope, and nature of the medico-legal investigation as well as formulation of cause of death were recorded. A total of 289 cases were identified for inclusion in this study, 57 % of which were considered to have been non-viable fetuses, while 45 of the viable fetuses were deemed to have been stillborn. These instances involve the crimes of concealment of birth and at times illegal abortion, yet prosecution of these cases are relatively unheard of. Signs of live birth were identified in 38 of the cases in the study. Of these infants, 9 were deemed to have died from injuries they have sustained, and in a further 9 cases, no anatomical cause of death could be identified. Homicidal cases should be brought in cases where death ensued as a result of abandonment; however, it is not known how many cases were prosecuted. A comparatively large number of cases were found to have been admitted to the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory. This is alarming because South African abortion laws are liberal and services are free at point of access in the public health care sector. A substantial percentage of cases of abandoned infants were found to have shown signs of life after birth implying a homicidal manner of death or death by abandonment, but it seems these cases are merely shelved.