"Safe haven" laws became
national news recently when the state of Nebraska closed a loophole
that allowed desperate parents to abandon minor children in the state,
regardless of the parents’ residence status or the children’s age.
On Saturday, the final loophole minor–a
14-year-old boy from California–was
abandoned and left a ward of the state. Now babies must be under
30 days old for the parents to qualify, and after that, parents and
children are on their own. The only good news to come out of this
squalid affair is that it exposed the flaws of feel-good, do-nothing
legislation such as "safe haven" laws.
"Safe haven" laws were
created after a national panic in the 90s over "dumpster babies"–infants
that are born and left to die of exposure by desperate mothers.
There’s no reason to think that the rate of infanticide-by-abandonment
was rising at the time, and there’s no reason to think that most infant
abandonment fits the romantic stereotype of the pregnant teenager who
successfully hides her pregnancy only to abandon the infant once its
born. But who needs statistical trends when you have attention-grabbing
headlines? There were a couple of high profile cases of white
teenagers who did kill their infants this way, and that was enough to
set off a panic. The most famous of these cases is the case of Melissa Drexler, who left during the prom, gave birth
in the bathroom, threw the newborn in the trash and went back to dancing.
The infant died, and Drexler went to prison.
Obviously, cases like these
are a tragedy, but the response of enacting "safe haven" laws just
added insult to injury. The whole fiasco had the fingerprints, at least the cultural
of the anti-choice movement all over it. (Anti-choice groups certainly like to inject themselves
and take credit for the laws.) he images of white teenagers abandoning perfectly healthy white babies–babies
that could be salvaged for worthy adopting couples!–fit neatly into
the pre-existing stereotype of who gets abortions promoted by the anti-choice
movement. It all seems designed to put people in the mindset of
thinking that the entire problem will go away if you can just make it
somehow easier for young, white women to get their babies into the hands
of eager adopting couples. But it’s never that easy.
In Drexler’s case, I find
it hard to believe she would have risked being seen leaving the prom
with the infant to leave it at the local fire department, even if that
was an option. A
2003 review of the laws found
that while they did result in an increase in overall infant abandonment,
they didn’t put a dent in the number of infants killed by exposure.
Women who leave infants to die are so marginal that a quick fix, feel-good
solution is unlikely to reach them. By enacting ineffective laws
meant to address the problem of infanticide, we may have made the problem
worse. Patting ourselves
on the back is no substitute for real action.
"Safe haven" laws don’t
do much to reduce the rates of infanticide, but they do give anti-choicers
even more cover for their argument that forcing women to give birth
against their will is no big deal. If you can give birth and walk
out of the hospital without even signing your name to paperwork, then
no harm, no foul, right? (Except of course the nine months of
your life you gave over, your altered body, the risk to life and limb,
the searing pain, and the soul-destroying misery many women experience
when separated from their newborns.) These laws are an extension
of the myth that if we just made adoption easier somehow, then the need
for abortion would largely vanish.
The empty, feel-good myth about
how we just need to make giving a child up for adoption easier is popular
across the political spectrum. Liberals say it to assure everyone
that we’re trying to reduce the abortion rate with carrots instead
of sticks. Conservatives say it to assure audiences that a ban
on abortion won’t be that bad for women, who presumably can just give
birth and walk away, leaving their babies to worthier couples who aren’t
wayward sluts. Few people have the guts to point out that the
belief that adoption will reduce the abortion rate is largely a myth. Now that it’s legal in basically
all states to drop off an infant without explanation and terminate your
parental responsibilities with no effort, we can firmly state that the
rhetoric about adoption is hollow and empty.
The Nebraska debacle demonstrates
the horror of putting symbolic gestures and empty rhetoric above real
action that could actually help people. Not to put too fine a
point on it, but the rewrite of the law sends a clear message: Don’t
use laws meant to offer symbolic help as if they could really help you.
As an added bonus, they helped clarify how old you have to be before
"pro-lifers" lose interest in your life–30 days old. It’s
almost as if "safe haven" laws have failed if they manage to do
any real good in the world.
It’s as if their entire purpose
was to make it harder for pro-choicers to plea hardship when arguing
for a woman’s right to terminate.
It’s tempting to rant a little
about how better sex education and contraception might be a better way
to reduce the infanticide rate, but honestly, I don’t think that would
help. In the few outlier cases that make the news–the white
teenagers who successfully hide pregnancies and then kill the infants–it
might help some. The real story of most women in this situation
is far bleaker. Desperate
poverty is a common denominator.
Many women fall through the cracks in our society and fall prey to drug
abuse, prostitution, and other ills. Instead of applying a feel-good,
do-nothing solution, why don’t we look into closing up the cracks
that people fall through that leave them in such desperation?