A colleague emailed me a few days ago to suggest that I listen to an NPR story headlined "Spread of Baby Boxes Alarms Europeans," about the growing number of facilities -- now in at least 11 of the continent's 27 countries -- where newborns can be legally abandoned. "I'm very glad we don't have anything like this in the U.S.," my friend wrote.
Alas, she was wrong. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have implemented so-called Safe Haven laws during the last decade, with exactly the same intent as the Baby Boxes: to save newborns from being left in horrible places (dumpsters and the like) by providing safe alternatives. In Europe, they are hatches at designated buildings into which babies can be placed and then retrieved by trained workers on the other side; in America, they are usually hospitals, firehouses or police stations, where personnel inside can accept the child.
The big difference between their approach and ours, apart from the logistics, is that there's a substantial debate in Europe over the effectiveness and wisdom of legalizing infant abandonment -- withhuman rights advocates and the United Nations calling for an outright ban on Baby Boxes -- while there's barely a peep in this country because, thus far, lawmakers have accepted this bottom-line contention: "If it saves just one baby's life, isn't it worth doing?"
It's a powerful, emotional, compelling argument. It is also deeply flawed.
The best social policies result from solid research, thoughtful planning and careful implementation. Unfortunately, these basic standards haven't been applied to the laws that address the disconcerting, very real problem of infants being abandoned in dumpsters, bathrooms, and other dangerous places.
Instead, with too little information about the causes of the phenomenon or the potential effectiveness of the response, lawmakers nationwide have created these so-called "safe havens" -- again, usually hospitals, police stations and firehouses -- where new mothers can legally desert their babies, anonymously and without the risk of prosecution.
These well-intentioned laws spread so rapidly during the past decade because they promised an intuitively appealing, easy fix. But complex social problems are rarely resolved through simple, feel-good solutions. So it's no surprise that the Donaldson Adoption Institute's examination of the issue, entitled "Unintended Consequences," not only concluded that there was no evidence the safe haven statutes work, but also found that they had serious drawbacks. The Institute is in the process of conducting research to update this report, which was published several years ago, but indications are that its findings remain true.
In a nutshell, the core flaw in these laws is that a mother who is so distraught or so in denial that she would stuff her newborn into a trash can is not likely, instead, to ask her boyfriend for a ride to the police station. The Institute found that disconnect to be the major reason unsafe abandonments were continuing unabated, even in states that advertised their "safe havens" on highway billboards and in public-service TV commercials.
Women in distress need counseling and support, not to mention pre- and postnatal medical assistance. But these laws don't even pretend to offer resources to help mothers deliver healthy babies or to resolve the traumas that lead them to jeopardize their newborns' lives. This don't ask, don't tell approach does open a Pandora's box, however.
It undermines the established legal rights of biological fathers to parent their own children, for instance, while precluding grandparents and other relatives from helping to care for the mother or her child. Alternatively, it creates the opportunity for irate boyfriends or disapproving family members to coerce an emotionally fragile teenager into deserting her baby, or even to take the child themselves and anonymously abandon it.
Perhaps worst of all, these laws proclaim, loud and clear, that deserting a child is socially sanctioned behavior. That's an unnerving message for our culture to be sending. And we know anecdotally that it is being heard: Some women who never would have thought to deprive their offspring of genealogical, personal, or even critically important medical information are doing so now, because they've been given an option that's less of a hassle than receiving parenting counseling or filling out an adoption agency's paperwork.
So there are indeed infants being left at safe havens, but there's no evidence that many -- or perhaps any -- of them would have been left in horrible places if these laws didn't exist. Rather, they very likely are children who otherwise would have been adopted through traditional means or been raised by birth relatives, but who now must grow up without any prospect of knowing the most basic facts about themselves.
The Adoption Institute report raised other red flags, too, from specific concerns such as whether these laws actually encourage women to conceal their pregnancies and give birth unsafely, to the sweeping indictment that anonymous abandonment flies in the face of recognized best practices developed for decades by child-welfare and adoption professionals.
The proponents of safe havens and Baby Boxes most effectively answer criticism by saying their approach is worthwhile even if it saves just one baby's life.
I have an alternative suggestion: Let's aim higher. Let's conduct the solid research, and then do the thoughtful planning and careful implementation. That way, we can develop policies that help women who face crisis pregnancies, prevent infant abandonment -- and maybe, just maybe, save all the babies' lives.