Rebranding safe haven laws

—Laury Oaks

Last week, the Republican-heavy Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to enhance its safe haven law and voiced support for a newly marketed baby-saving product: the Safe Haven Baby Box. Indiana firefighter, medic, adoptee, non-profit founder, and pro-life speaker Monica Kelsey is promoting metal, black 2-foot long incubators branded with SafeHavenBabyBoxes.com as a solution to a problem that haunts baby abandonment prevention advocates: Despite safe haven laws passed in every state between 1999 and 2009, newborns continue to be unsafely abandoned.

Advocates of Indiana’s baby boxes are concerned that distressed mothers fail to safely relinquish their newborns because they fear facing a first responder, required by most state’s laws. Sidelining other relevant issues, including coercion, fathers’ rights, and even baby-knapping, the problem is distilled and oversimplified.

Drawing on centuries-old European practices, heated incubators located at an exterior wall of a hospital were installed in 1999 in Hamburg, Germany. Known as baby boxes, flaps, or hatches, this system is sponsored by non-governmental organizations and religious organizations in 11 European countries and in China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. In the US, state governments legislate safe haven sites and non-profit baby abandonment prevention organizations promote their use. The embrace of baby boxes by Indiana politicians is in stark contrast to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s outspoken opposition to this drop-off mechanism because anonymity denies the child knowledge of its identity.

Media coverage of the Indiana government’s first step to authorize baby boxes focuses primarily on the novelty of this proposed baby-rescue method. The last time an innovative safe haven law was implemented was in Nebraska, the last state to pass a law. No upper age limit was set, resulting in the relinquishment of teenagers — including a teen mother and her infant — by distressed guardians, many of whom traveled to Nebraska as a last resort and exposing a severe lack of adequate social services. How might Indiana’s baby boxes be used in unanticipated ways?

Other dimensions of safe haven advocacy are downplayed when baby boxes are trumpeted as an exciting advance. One is the underlying anti-abortion and pro-adoption views held by vocal safe haven advocates, including Kelsey. Further, the anonymity of the baby box drop-off conceals any understanding of the experiences of women and girls who are faced with a safe haven decision. Unwantedness is not the only or the main factor that leads to relinquishment.

Instead of debating the value of baby boxes, state governments should direct attention to the unequal social and economic support available to women and girls within our society. A reproductive justice analysis pushes us to critically question the safe haven assumption that a good mother relinquishes her newborn anonymously as an act of maternal love. It is our political and social responsibility to reveal and eliminate the social injustices that coerce some women and girls to relinquish the right to raise their newborns or to ever have future contact with them.

Laury Oaks is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice (NYU Press, 2015).

3 Comments on Rebranding safe haven laws

  1. It is encouraging to hear a vocal range of voices in opposition to the financial and practical dimensions of the proposed use of “baby boxes” in Indiana. However, the debates around baby boxes are functioning to garner stronger support for existing safe haven laws. It is the case, as I argue in my book, that all state safe haven legislation has been focused overwhelmingly on the well-being of the relinquished newborn/infant and not on the woman or girl who relinquishes her motherhood by relying on a safe haven. Advocates of baby safe havens have sought to educate girls and women about these laws by emphasizing the benefit to them of remaining anonymous; the baby box system builds on this model. Although some safe haven advocacy groups run hotlines, provide counseling and pregnancy support, and facilitate adoption, this work lies beyond what is given in state safe haven laws. Safe haven legislation itself does not include mandatory physical or mental health care for relinquishing mothers, which limits our public knowledge about the needs of women and girls who opt to use safe havens instead of a planned adoption.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful insight. Those of us affiliated with the Safe Haven advocacy efforts, in other states and at the national level, have voiced concern that this is more of a step backward than forward AND that the $500K needed to bring the law to reality could be much better spent informing people about the Safe Haven laws.

    Your post raises an equally compelling concern. As a feminist and Women’s Studies minor in my undergraduate degree, as well as a pro-choice Safe Haven advocate, I thank you for noting one of root causes of the need for Safe Havens.

    Again, Dr. Oaks, my gratitude. In the event you have time, I’d love to discuss the book. I note it won’t be in publication for another nine weeks, and Illinois has legislation pending this spring.

    Best regards,

    Melissa Pazen, MSW
    Inspired Coaching, Melissa Pazen
    39w328 W. Burnham Ln, Geneva, IL 60134
    Cell: 773.405.3301
    http://www.melissapazen.com

    LIVE INSPIRED: think boldly; love unconditionally; behave respectfully; act deliberately, kindly, justly, mercifully and humbly; forgive easily; live authentically; laugh frequently!

  3. As the Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies I would have thought that Ms. Oaks would have immediately picked up on the heavy shaming aspects of the proponent of this “baby box” scheme. And it’s just a publicity scheme for the sponsor. Her sole language is about saving babies, and almost never mentions the young women who are in a crisis that could end up in an abandonment tragedy.
    The woman who is the sole person who has done all of the press is above the age of having children, and wants young women to stay in the shadows, not seek any social or medical services, then secretly drop the newborn in her “baby box” and return to the shadows. The sponsor of the bill then of course will celebrate that she “saved” the baby with absolutely no care for the woman who might still be in a crisis.
    That’s why these “baby boxes” are an extremely risky scheme that no state has ever placed a bill before a legislature for. It’s been studied by the experts who helped pass, implement and run safe haven awareness foundations, but every one of these foundations and experts knows how risky these “boxes” are to both the newborn and especially to the young women who would essentially be tricked into using them by people like the sponsor of the Indiana bill.
    Every single foundation that runs a safe haven awareness campaign, hotline and info web site is opposed to the Indiana bill, and have all the data and experience to lobby against passage with all of the answers to any questions asked why this “baby boxes” concept is so dangerous.
    The Indiana House of Representatives never heard anything about the true problems about the “baby boxes” scheme, because the sponsors never contacted a single long standing Baby Safe Haven foundation foundation for data and info before it was filed, The sponsors then never notified the experienced foundations and experts before the House hearing, and instead gave the House committee many untrue statements about the bill. The House voted just as the foundations and experts became aware of the false and negative statements made to support the bill, but now the Indiana Senate knows the facts, data and truth of what the “baby boxes” are all about. The outcome could be very different as the Indiana Senate does its due diligence on the proper research necessary to pass a bill where newborns lives are at stake.

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