BIRTH (a word common in various forms to Teutonic languages from the root of the verb “to bear”), the act of bringing forth a child, or the fact of its being born; so also a synonym for descent or lineage. In law, a child not actually born, but en ventre sa mère, is supposed for many purposes to be actually born, and may take any benefit to which it would have been entitled if actually born, i.e. it may take as legatee or devisee, or even as next-of-kin or heir, but none of these conditions will take effect, unless the child is born alive (see Medical Jurisprudence). The given year of age of a child is gained at the first instant of the day preceding the birthday, and no account is taken of parts of a day, e.g. a child born at 11.59 on the night of the 2nd–3rd of May 1900, would be of age the first moment after midnight of the 1st–2nd of May 1921. In English law, by the Offences against the Person Act of 1861, it is a misdemeanour punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, to endeavour to conceal the birth of a child by any secret disposition of its dead body, whether the child died before, after or at its birth.
Registration of Births.—The registration of baptisms is said to have been first introduced by Thomas Cromwell when vicar-general in 1538, but it is only in comparatively modern times that registration has been fully carried out. The law relating to the registration of births was consolidated for England by the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1874, and for Ireland by the Births and Deaths Registration Act (Ireland) 1880. In Scotland it depends upon the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1854, as amended by later acts. Previously to the passing of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1836, the records of the births were compiled from parish registers, which were formerly a part of the ecclesiastical organization, and continued to be attached, more or less, to the church till the passing of the act of 1836. That act provided a far more complete machinery than that before existing for the exact record of all births. The new system relieved the clergy from all functions previously thrown upon them, and finally, after improvement by subsequent acts, was made compulsory in 1874. The act of 1836 established a general register office in London, presided over by an officer called the registrar-general, with general superintendence over everything relating to registration. The registrar-general is appointed under the Great Seal. Every poor-law union or parish is divided into districts, each of which is called by a distinct name, and is in charge of a registrar, who is a local officer appointed by the guardians of the union. Over each union is a superintendent registrar, who has supervision over the registrars within his district. The office of superintendent registrar is usually filled by the clerk to the guardians of the union. He receives quarterly from every registrar within his district certified copies of the births registered by him and having verified their correctness, transmits them to the registrar-general. He takes charge of the register-books within the district, when filled. Every registrar is required to inform himself carefully of every birth which happens within his sub-district and register the same, with the various particulars required, according to the forms laid down for the purpose. It is the duty of the father or mother of any child born alive, or in their default, then of the occupier of the house (if he knows of the birth) or of any person present at the birth or having charge of the child, to give to the registrars, within forty-two days after the day of the birth, information of the particulars required to be registered concerning the birth, and in the presence of the registrar to sign the register. Every person required to give information concerning any birth who wilfully refuses to answer questions put to him by the registrar concerning the particulars required to be registered, or who refuses or fails without reasonable excuse to give information of any birth, becomes liable to a penalty of forty shillings. After three months a birth can only be registered in the presence of the superintendent registrar, and after the expiration of twelve months a birth can only be registered with the written authority of the registrar-general. In the case of an illegitimate child, no person as the father of such child is required to give information, nor is the name of any one entered in the register as the father of such a child, unless at the joint request of the mother and the person who acknowledges himself to be the father. An additional duty is placed upon the father by the Notification of Births Act 1907. By that act it is the duty of the father of a child if he is actually residing in the house where the birth takes place at the time of its occurrence to give notice in writing of the birth to the medical officer of health of the district in which the child is born within thirty-six hours of the birth. The same duty is also imposed upon any person in attendance (i.e. medical practitioner or midwife) upon the mother at the time of or within six hours after the birth. The medical officer of health is then in a position to take such steps, by advice or otherwise, as may, in his opinion lead to the prevention of infant mortality. Notice under the act is given by posting a prepaid letter or postcard to the medical officer of health giving the necessary information. Failure to give notice entails on summary conviction a penalty not exceeding twenty shillings. The act is optional to local authorities, but may be enforced within any area by the Local Government Board. By the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1874 and the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, commanding officers of ships trading to or from British ports must, under a penalty, transmit returns of all births occurring on board their ships to the registrar-general of shipping, who furnishes certified copies of such returns to the registrars-general for England, Scotland and Ireland. These returns of births (and deaths) constitute the “Marine Register Book.”
Registration is very efficiently carried out in practically every European country, with the exceptions of Turkey and Russia. In the United States laws requiring registration vary in the different states.
Tax on Birth.—In 1694 an act was passed in England for “granting to His Majesty certain rates and duties upon marriages, births and burials, upon bachelors and widowers for the term of five years, for carrying on the war against France with vigour.” The taxes were graduated, rising from four shillings on the burial of the humblest person to £50 in the case of a duke or duchess. The duty on births varied according to the rank of the parents. A duke paid £30 on the birth of an eldest son, and £25 for every other child; a baronet or knight, £5 for an eldest son, and £1 each for other children. An archbishop or bishop, or a doctor of divinity, law or physic paid £1 for every child; a gentleman having a personal estate of £600 or a real estate worth £50 per annum, paid ten shillings on the birth of each child. Every other person not receiving alms paid a tax of two shillings on the birth of each child. This measure, however, was only temporary, and passed for revenue purposes solely.