The basic facts are shocking
and disturbing. A newborn baby boy was found alive in a
St. Louis city dumpster
on a Monday evening. He was cold but alive. The umbilical
cord was still attached. A curious city resident heard the infant’s
cry, went to investigate and saved a life.
Incidents like this do not
happen often but they could happen anywhere. Following the infant’s
discovery, the media has been exploring the angles from the police department’s search for the mother to the flood of prospective adoptive
parents contacting child welfare officials. Outraged listeners
are calling in to local talk radio stations questioning what kind of
woman would leave her infant in a dumpster. They’re even more
outraged when they discover that Missouri has a Safe Haven, or "baby Moses," law that states that an unharmed newborn, up to 30 days old,
may be relinquished to personnel at any medical facility, fire department
or police department without punishment for the mother and without automatic termination of parental rights. All states have some version of this Safe Haven
or baby Moses law.
This woman had options, many
callers say. She could have dropped the baby off at the hospital instead of a dumpster.
My first reaction to this story
was concern for the infant and the mother. The newborn is recovering
at St. Louis Children’s Hospital but the mother has yet to be identified.
A person of interest
has been identified
on surveillance video and witnesses place a woman with blood on her
clothing in the vicinity of the dumpster in which the baby was found.
Authorities point out that, having recently given birth, the mother
may be in need of medical attention too.
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Curiosity quickly joined my
concern. I volunteer with pregnant teens and young mothers at
shelters and yet I was unfamiliar with the specifics of our safe haven law.
On the surface, the law appears to do exactly what the title states:
provide a safe place for newborns and an option other than abandonment
on a doorstep or in a dumpster. But if people only hear about the law
when news of an abandoned baby breaks, how significant an impact can the law possibly
have and what, if anything, is being done to address the underlying reasons why
a woman may find herself needing to give up her baby?
I know from my volunteer experience
at emergency shelters that finding a shelter placement is hard. There
are long waiting lists at shelters — not nearly enough shelters — for pregnant women and new mothers facing domestic violence or
unfit home situations. And I also know that the safe haven law
is not well publicized, nor are the designated locations.
Yet the benefits of the Safe
Haven law seem clear to an outraged public. If a woman finds herself
in a desperate situation she can simply go to a designated safe haven
and leave her baby, no questions asked. Instead it appears that
a woman gave birth alone and then abandoned the infant to a city dumpster.
She didn’t take advantage of the Safe Haven law and, to many people,
that makes her a monster.
Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates
for Pregnant Women
(NAPW), says that while anything that provides an alternative to punishment
is good, Safe Haven laws are necessary because our government
is failing its responsibilities to provide for the health and well being
of women and families.
"In a sense it seems that
these laws become the substitute for universal health care and comprehensive
sex education," Paltrow says. "The government won’t provide universal health
care — that includes contraception, prenatal care, mental health services,
and abortion — so that women might not need to drop their babies off
at fire houses. Moreover, the government funds abstinence-only,
shame-based sex education rather than comprehensive sex education that
would help prevent unplanned pregnancies and reduce the shame associated
with them — so women might not feel their only option is leaving a
child with the local firefighters."
Paltrow points to the fact
that Safe Haven or "baby Moses" laws are used to argue against abortion
rights. In arguments made on behalf of Jane Roe/Norma McCorvey, when she partnered
with anti-abortion groups in an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, one brief argued that
abortion no longer needed to be legal because the burden of unwanted
motherhood no longer exists.
"The brief makes it seem
that Texas, with its appallingly bad record for providing poor children
with health care, with hundreds if not thousands of children languishing
in foster care — will somehow become the great soviet lone-star state
that will raise women’s children for them," says Paltrow.
Paltrow warns that in South
Carolina, the one state that permits prosecution of pregnant women who
even risk harm to their viable unborn children, women who take advantage
of the Baby Moses law may still be arrested.
Safe Haven laws do not absolve
society of our responsibility to women and families. They do not
eliminate the need for reproductive justice; instead, they shine a glaring
light on the ramifications of the lack of reproductive justice, social
support systems and options. Perhaps the question isn’t what
kind of woman abandons her infant in a dumpster and walks away.
The question is what kind of society abandons its responsibility to
women and families in favor of Safe Haven laws that do little to create
communities that are safe havens themselves.