Infant Safe Haven Laws: Legislating the Culture of Life

By Sanger, Carol | Conscience, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Infant Safe Haven Laws: Legislating the Culture of Life


Sanger, Carol, Conscience


THE DISCOVERY OF DEAD AND discarded newborn infants seems to have become a regular aspect of life across the United States. Many will remember the infamous "prom mom" from New Jersey, but more ordinary cases--Baby Found in Parking Lot or Dumpster or Behind Dorm--are now familiar to us all. To many, it seems that something has gone terribly wrong with young women today.

The phenomenon of discarded newborns has triggered a widespread legislative response. Since 1999, 46 states have enacted infant "safe-haven" legislation. These laws offer mothers an alternative: Bring your newborn to a designated location and leave, no questions asked. Mothers who drop their babies at a safe haven can do so anonymously and with immunity from prosecution. The tag line for New Jersey's law captures the program's content and its sell: "No Shame. No Blame. No Names."

Safe-haven laws have enormous appeal. Newborns at risk are spared physical harm, young women are rescued from criminality, and politicians are seen as acting to solve a sordid social problem. The statutes are often referred to as "Baby Moses laws," and the biblical analogy seems just right: A loving mother gives up her infant so that he will be safe.

But here things get a bit more complicated. After all, Baby Moses was not set among the bulrushes because his mother was going to kill him. The threat to his life came from enemies in the larger world. In contrast, safe-haven legislation focuses on a more intimate source of danger. It is the brutal or reckless acts of mothers themselves from which infants now need to be saved. Thus New Jersey's imperative to pregnant women--"Don't Abandon Your Baby"--is not quite accurate. What New Jersey really means is: Don't kill your baby, please do abandon it, and the state will make that as easy and legal as possible.

Of course, history reminds us that there has always been some infant abandonment. Across time and cultures, parents who cannot or will not raise their children because the social or economic costs of doing so are too high find ways of disposing of them by some means or other. They set them out in marketplaces or, in the common practice throughout Catholic Europe in earlier centuries, leave them under cover of darkness at churches and foundling homes.

Nonetheless, the abandonment of newborns in 2006 disturbs and puzzles. After all, families in the U.S. are not starving, single mothers are less stigmatized, and adoption and foster care are available. What then is going on with these young women? And why do safe-haven laws make so little difference? For a while, infants are delivered to safe havens, but dead newborns regularly turn up in all the usual places.

At first glance, it may seem bewildering that any mother would not take the state up on its offer to leave an unwanted baby with impunity. There are, however, several explanations why this is not the case. To begin, many people simply don't know about the legislation. State after state has uncovered this problem and sought to increase and to popularize publicity. Even for mothers who do know, there are serious problems in implementing the scheme. Just how does a mother who has given birth by herself in a locked bathroom get her newborn safely out of her parents' house and to the hospital without being detected? Finally, there is a serious disconnect between safe-haven incentives and the characteristics of women the laws seek to attract. Almost all women who kill their babies on the first day of life have concealed their pregnancies; many are in denial and don't fully regard themselves as pregnant. By their lights, publicity urging mothers to give up their newborns has nothing to do with them.

But if safe-haven laws are not working to prevent infant deaths, what explains their popularity? Certainly, part of the impetus is an abiding respect for life--especially children's lives. As the New Jersey legislature stated, "This legislation is worthwhile if it saves even one infant's life. …

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