No “Safe Haven” in New Nebraska Law

"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
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?

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte

  • invalid-0

    My co-blogger, Marley Greiner and I have opposed these laws since their inception in Texas in 1999, (then called “baby Moses laws.”)

    We have each separately on our own blogs, and then more recently joined forces to gather our documenting of the mess in Nebraska into one joint effort, Children of the Corn. Readers can explore the history of the Nebraska mess, and the practical application details of how Nebraska played out there (as written through the eyes of two adult adoptees.)

    The dump laws, by which ever name, have their roots in the anti-adoption/anti-reproductive autonomy movement. The concept was initially marketed by (the late) Bill Pierce of the National Council for Adoption (NCFA, an adoption industry trade/lobbying group.) He viewed them as a way around existing adoption requirements, labeling them a form of “non-bureaucratic placement” as in most states the dump laws undermine any notion of informed consent, short circuit women’s and parental rights in adoption and existing revocation periods, and completely circumvent the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA.) All while leaving no paperwork trail.

    Pierce also served as the first Vice President of Democrats for Life and as a Senior Fellow of (the notorious) Discovery Institute, heading their office in Washington, D.C.. Pierce was an anti-abortion Catholic who viewed his adoption work as part of a zero-sum game form of working against abortion.

    Early “safe haven” hotlines were answered by anti-abortion coercive pregnancy indoctrination centers’ hotlines.

    While support for the laws has unfortunately come from both sides of the political aisle, only one side stands to benefit from such.

    The “save babies” meme is now being included in some systems’ school curriculums as part of encouraging teens how to maintain hidden pregnancies with no prenatal care, give birth in secret far from medical care, and then “safe haven” the resultant babies (provided the women actually survive long enough to do so, that is.)

    The existence of the dump laws themselves have been utilized in legal briefs by Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano in their attempts to overturn Roe and Doe.

    Those who support abortion access need to take a MUCH closer look at these laws and who the personalities in the practical application of them are.

  • invalid-0

    Wow Amanda, this is just cold . . . Of course no law is perfect and has drawbacks (which we can and should remedy), but if even one baby (of any race)is saved from slowly dying in a dumpster or toilet, then aren’t these laws worth it?

    Is your hate of pro-lifers so blinding that you can’t even see that in this case the motive isn’t about controlling women, saving the “white race,”or any of the other silly reasons you commonly pin on them. Instead it is simply about keeping helpless babies from dying? If you can’t at least see that then I pity you.

    • invalid-0

      If saving the children were that important then the idea that the safe haven laws as they are, are enough would never be brought up. There are so many things lacking from these laws. First the protection of the older children at risk of abandonment by their parents or worse. A 31 day old infant is no more capable of fending for himself than a 3 day old newborn, or for that matter a six or eight year old child.
      Of just as much or more importance is preventing the situations that cause these acts to begin with. Adequate access to birth control and preventative measures to prevent unwanted, unplanned, pregnancies that parents are unprepared for is the first step. More support for parents and the children they already have who are too old for these measures to benefit them is the next large step that needs to be taken. Nebraska is a striking example of this need.
      If people are too caught up in patting themselves on the back for failed law to see this, they must be blinded by their own false morality.

  • invalid-0

    This is completely pathetic. Is it better for a “desperately impoverished” woman to safely abandon her baby and never be prosecuted, or to dump the baby and risk going to prison? I guess you’re right: let’s repeal safe haven laws and send more women to jail. Stop seeing every law that doesn’t promote abortion as an anti-choice conspiracy.

  • invalid-0

    DerekP and Anonymous should go read the Children of the Corn thing because they obviously have no idea what the safe-haven laws are about.

  • amanda-marcotte

    You’d be right.  But it actually, if you read the article, is counterproductive.  By slapping a Band-Aid onto the problem, we don’t address root causes, and thus babies get killed and people don’t think it’s a problem.


    If you’re truly concerned about infanticide, you’d be interested in root causes, not with feel-good measures that do nothing.  I think that’s obvious, don’t you? That these laws don’t do much but create problems inclines me to think supporters have an agenda that isn’t exactly about stopping infanticide.

  • invalid-0

    I am a pro-lifer, and I think it is a shame that Nebraska has chosen to limit its law to children under the age of 30 days. These other children (and their families) are obviously in desperate need of a legal alternative that has now been cut off from them. It makes sense that Nebraska might not have the resources to take care of all similar cases from all of the other states, but if each state had a similar law of its own and thus had only to deal with its proper percentage of desperate cases, what a difference it might make in the rates of child abuse and domestic violence!

  • invalid-0

    First of all , I totally agree that the best means of preventing abandonment of unwanted infants is to make contraceptive knowledge, contraception, and abortion universally available.
    But given that even such universal availability might not totally eliminate unwanted births, the Safe Haven laws make sense. These laws should run for at least the first year, preferably first several years. And there should be a Safe Haven surrender point at every anti-contraception church and at every legislative house in the nation.
    The commonly overlooked issue in the contraception and abortion wars is quite simply WHO WILL RAISE THE CHILDREN ? The assumption that there are enough eagerly waiting adopters for every misconceived fetus is utterly untrue. The eager adopters almost all have strict criteria for what kind of infant they are willing to adopt. Mostly these criteria relate to health (most want a healthy infant or at least one whose problems are correctable ; very few want AIDS babies, crack babies, fetal alcohol babies, Downs Syndrom babies, etc), race / ancestry (many want on infant whose race/ancestry is somewhat similar to their own), and age (most want only newborns or very young ones because they incorrectly imagine that this is a “blank slate” that they can mold to their desired behavior pattern).
    Meanwhile there is a huge stockpile of older children languishing in the foster care system that at best provides a second class upbringing that will end the second the child turns 18.
    Let’s expand the Safe Haven program by expanding the age upwards.
    And let’s provide a commensurate pool of adopters by enrolling all the Anti-Choice (self proclaimed pro-life) people into the Adopter Draft Pool. Every time a child is surrendered into Safe Haven, an adopter’s name would be drawn by lottery and that adopter would be assigned that child to raise.

    I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that if the self-proclaimed pro-lifers had to actually put their own money and their own labor into rearing the fetuses whose birth they would compell, most of them would quickly have an epiphany of enlightenment and start proclaimiing that contraception and abortion are sacraments.

    • invalid-0

      The Drexler incident occured in my old stomping grounds in Monmouth County, where Bruce Springsteen before me was born to run. The courthouse where Melissa was sentenced is a nice walk from the house where my mother still lives, and my brother’s family is in even closer proximity. “Safe haven” laws are definitely feel-good legislation for “normal” families that chip away at the tip of one huge iceberg America does not wish to face head-on: overpopulation. The dumpster baby, the men who murder their pregnant girlfriends/mistresses/wives/daughters, the females of all ages who kill themselves rather than face a(nother) pregnancy, the hundreds of (mostly) men in jail for non-support, the thousands of court cases heard daily where parental rights are in jeopardy, the tens of thousands of court cases heard daily for child-support/visitation/abuse all point to one direction – our society cannot take the amount of live births we now experience. Until some things (a lot of things) are done to change our society, birth control – including abortion – must be widely distributed, advocated and even celebrated.
      For those of you skeptical about my words, ask yourself, why do we have the highest stats for unplanned pregnancy AND incarceration in the developed world. Can you say cradle-to-prison? I know that you could.

  • invalid-0

    Right ON Amanda! “Safe Haven” laws are foolish attempts at misdirection from the real issues.

    If one of the safe haven places would choose to convert themselves into places where new mothers could go for food, comfort, non-judgmental counseling and shelter I would say NOW YOU’RE TALKING!

  • invalid-0

    It’s really very wrong that these anti-Pro-choice groups use the ” Safe Haven ” law to justify their cause. It’s really insulting to hear them say that all will be hunky-dory because you can just drop your baby of at the nearest hospital if you don’t want it.

    Try telling that to those women who lost their jobs , health and even lives because of their pregnancy.

    -Dino Delellis

  • invalid-0

    It’s so sad to see a law that’s meant to protect children being abused. People using this as an easy way out by getting rid of children they don’t want and by these Anti-pro-choice groups as a tool to further push their agendas.

    This law should be fine tuned so that I won’t be easily used by those not qualified to avail this. And these groups should have the decency to leave this law alone.