Which US Safe Harbor laws allow mothers to abandon their infants?
- Linda Barzley
- BBC, Ariz
The abolition of the constitutional right to abortion played a major role in the recent midterm elections in the USA. Among the proposals put to the Supreme Court when it considered invalidating the so-called “Roe v. Wade” law that guaranteed this right for women was that it was possible to find an alternative to abortion in the so-called “safe harbor” laws.
These laws apply in all US states and allow mothers to anonymously abandon their newborn children in designated locations without falling under the law.
Below are the stories of three people impacted by US Safe Harbor laws.
It was a dark, rainy winter night on the Arizona plains. Michelle was driving down a deserted road when she suddenly stopped.
Michelle recalls that she was “in excruciating pain and I didn’t have enough time to go to the hospital.” Michelle put her baby in the car near a creek 20 miles from the nearest town.
“I was so scared. I remember starting to pray and calling for my mother… how I wished my mother was by my side.”
While Michelle gave birth, her other baby daughter slept in the back seat. Michelle sat in the dark for 15 minutes, her cell phone battery dead, her baby girl wrapped in a blanket and placed on her lap.
She studied the child closely, trying to memorize her features. Then she turned the car and sped away.
Michelle was too scared to tell anyone about her pregnancy. Her other child’s father was moody, and she was estranged from him. And her relationship with the father of her second child, who had just been born, had already broken off. Michelle felt an inevitable predicament.
I went to the nearest hospital. She was aware of Arizona’s sanctuary laws — which meant she could give her little girl away without legal action as long as her little girl was unharmed. She ran to the reception desk and held the baby in her arms.
“I asked to speak to the maternity ward. I told them I thought giving them up was the best option for me. I wanted her to be safe – from my eldest daughter’s father.”
Michelle handed the baby over to the sisters. She knew another family would adopt her.
She stayed in the hospital for no more than three minutes.
What are baby boxes?
- Michelle handed her baby over to medical staff, but mothers can also put their babies in boxes or drawers at hospitals and fire stations.
- In medieval Europe, wooden boxes were placed next to hospitals and churches for the same purpose.
- “Baby boxes” still exist in other countries, but the United States is the only country with detailed legislation regarding abandoned babies.
- Safe Harbor laws were passed in the United States to prevent infanticide.
- Texas was the first state to pass these laws in 1999, and other US states followed suit.
- An infant’s risk of death is highest on the day of birth. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States indicates that the number of infants killed on the day of birth has fallen by about 67 percent since the introduction of these laws.
- However, it’s difficult to make a connection between the two things as there are other factors that could explain the decline.
It was the death of a newborn baby that propelled Heather Brenner to become an ardent advocate of safe havens. More than a decade ago, she was a pediatric nurse in the emergency room of a Phoenix hospital.
“A 15-year-old girl was taken to the hospital complaining of abdominal pain. After checking her vital signs, she went to the bathroom. She put her baby down alone and threw it in the trash. Twenty minutes later, a cleaner found the baby. We tried to help him but we couldn’t, we succeed.
Despite the availability of evidence that this girl is the mother, she denied it. It has been suggested that she may have been the victim of sexual assault by a member of her family.
“It was a shocking thing,” says Heather. Heather is currently director of the Arizona Safe Haven Program and executive director of the National Safe Havens Alliance and estimates that 4,687 children have been abandoned nationwide since 1999.
There is a coalition hotline that receives between 60 and 100 calls a month. Last June, when the Supreme Court considered Roe v. Picking up Wade increased the number of calls that came on the line by 300 percent. Anti-abortion groups have long argued that safe harbor laws negate the need for an abortion, a view expressed during hearings on the case.
For women calling the hotline, the advice to leave the newborn in a safe haven is the last resort.
Heather says: “We ask her what is preventing her from keeping and raising the child. In most cases, it is not the child that is the problem, but the circumstances. Is the mother homeless? Does she need someone to help her with the child? “I even remember paying the electric bill for one of the women, which made her feel like she could face what the future had in store for her.”
Some women who call the hotline keep their babies. Others choose to give the child up for adoption by another family and choose that family themselves – and sometimes meet with them. But some leave the kids in a safe haven.
Porter Olson lives west of Phoenix, Arizona with his adoptive family and their adoring dog. Porter is an energetic eleven year old who loves camping, gardening and cooking.
In 2011, the adoption agency contacted the Olsons to let them know they had a suitable child. “I got the call and they said we could adopt a baby,” says Michael Olson. He immediately texted his wife a few words: “Best day ever.”
His wife Nicole was in the classroom with her students. Nicole recalls: “I called my boss and said I wanted to inquire about maternity leave. She said, ‘Are you pregnant?’ I said, ‘No, but I’m having a baby today!’”
Porter’s mother had left him in a hospital crate. In Arizona, an infant is usually given to a family for adoption the same day it is found. As in the case of the Olsen couple, these families may not know at all about their new baby.
“Never mind – I always thought we could grow old together and think about it later,” says Nicole. Despite this, the couple felt it might be useful for Porter himself to learn more about his origins.
Porter says: “One day my mother told me I was going to do a DNA test. The result came out and the doctor said, ‘Congratulations! You’ll celebrate that you’re from multiple backgrounds.’” Saharan Africans and East Asians.
There is no mechanism allowing Porter to learn more about his parents. For this reason, some activists, who themselves were raised in adoptive families, oppose safe-haven laws. These laws have also been criticized by feminist academics for failing to address the social and economic injustices that can cause mothers to abandon their children from infancy.
And what happens when the mother reconsiders leaving her child forever?
“Some states give the mother a time limit in which to try to get the baby back,” said Kate Laudenslaghel, assistant district attorney for Maricopa County.
“But here in Arizona, for moms to change their minds is not an option. Abandoning a child is considered abandonment. If a man believes he is the father of a child whose mother has abandoned him, he has 30 days to notify the parent registry and prove his paternity.”
What the happened to Michelle?
“I couldn’t get rid of her picture, which never left me,” says Michelle of the infant she gave to the nurses that winter night.
Three days after delivery, Michelle contacted the Safe Havens Alliance. Heather Brenner agreed to take on the cause of this young woman overcome with grief and fear.
“Fortunately, the adoptive family was so understanding for her,” says Berner. Michelle got her little girl back 33 days after she left.
Michelle says seeing the little girl was the best feeling in the world. The couple who took care of the child agreed to give her back. But if they had refused, Michelle would have been forced to go to court.
Michelle agreed to speak to the BBC, perhaps because her story had a happy ending. But what about the thousands of other mothers who have abandoned their newborn babies and never seen them again?
It may be the best – or the only – option available to them. We don’t know because they rarely tell their stories.
Michelle’s real name was changed at her request
Photography: Tim Manzel
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