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Giving Up Baby

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
(Photo: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

(Photo: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

Advocates argue that safe haven laws prevent mothers from abandoning their newborns, but the policy abandons mothers upon dropoff.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's Pacific Standard review of Laury Oaks' Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Tuesday, September 15th. Until then, an excerpt:

In modern America, where Oaks focuses her attention, abandonment seems to be rare. Though the numbers are not comprehensively tracked, Oaks cites one 2001 study, which estimated that 105 babies were left in public places in 1998. The same year, 3.94 million American babies were born.

But even a single case of abandonment is difficult to shrug off. The earliest safe haven laws grew from the advocacy efforts of a handful of passionate individuals who were haunted by stories of dead babies. In Yucaipa, California, in 1996, Debi Faris founded the organization Garden of Angels to provide funerals for abandoned babies. “This is what we’ve become as a society,” she told Time. “It is easy to throw our children away.” Everyone can agree that a discarded baby is a sign of grave social ills, but different worldviews emphasize starkly disparate maladies. For a progressive feminist, the problem lies at the intersection of unevenly distributed resources and a lack of access to contraception and abortion; conservative Christians find the root causes in sex outside of marriage and disrespect for innocent life.

Starting with Texas in 1999, safe haven laws swiftly developed into an irresistible trend among state legislatures. Each state stipulates a different window, ranging from three days to one year after birth, during which a baby can be surrendered at a safe haven site, such as a hospital, police department, or fire station. The baby must be unharmed and handed directly to a person. In some states the person receiving the baby is required to ask a few questions for the baby’s health records, though the mother is not required to answer. The mother is not offered any services or support. Oaks includes very little data—and, to be fair, reporting is spotty—but the National Safe Haven Alliance claims that more than 1,000 infants have been turned over to safe havens since their inception.

In essence, safe haven surrenders are a quick path to adoption, without the planning and paperwork, and without the “open” process that has become standard in the U.S. The convenience and anonymity are selling points: A woman without the foresight to plan an adoption, or who may be keeping her pregnancy a secret, might choose a safe haven instead of abandonment. But critics argue that there are good reasons for the red tape and safeguards of formal adoption: to promote thoughtful decision-making, and to provide adoptees with essential self-knowledge. Oaks quotes the radical adoptee advocacy group Bastard Nation, which describes the laws as “anti-adoptee, anti-adoption, anti-child, anti-woman, and anti-family.”

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