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Morality and Law sections

"Safe Haven" laws: Decriminalizing
the abandonment of newborns

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"Safe Haven" laws:

Texas, in 1999, became the first state to enact a "safe haven" law which permits a person -- usually a parent -- to abandon a newborn baby at a specified location. This is typically in a hospital, firehouse, or police station. By 2003-MAR-11, 42 states had such laws. This increased to 47 states by the end of 2006.

State laws differ:

bulletSome states allow a newborn to be simply handed to a doctor or police officer.

bulletThe threat of criminal prosecution may be either reduced or eliminated, depending on the state.

bulletSome state laws allow the parent to remain anonymous; others require the person who receives the newborn to attempt to establish the identity of the parent and obtain a medical history.

bulletSome states place a limit on the age of the newborn who can be abandoned. The intent of this limit is to emphasize the importance of surrendering a newborn to a place quickly where he or she can receive proper care. If a parent is hiding their baby, she or he may not be receiving proper care and food.

The Safe Place for Newborns web site has a map of the U.S. that allows you to click on your state and find out details about its safe haven law. 1

The intent of these laws is to save the lives of newborns whose mothers had concealed their pregnancy, given birth alone, and then discarding the newborn in a hazardous location -- in a trash can, dumpster, park, forest, canal, church, carwash, in front of somebody's front door, etc. Many states passed this legislation in response to a tragedy which caused the death of a newborn. The names of these laws differ: Safe Haven, Safe Place, Baby Moses Law, Safe Arms for Newborns, Safe Delivery, Safe Surrender, etc.

Before the states passed safe haven laws, about 33 newborns were abandoned in Texas each year; 33 in Illinois; 9 or 10 in Washington State; 5 to 7 in Massachusetts, and probably similar numbers in other states, proportional to their population. Typically, one out of three of these abandoned newborns did not survive. 2

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History:

In 1999, Texas was the first state to enact a safe haven law. By 2003, 41 additional states had followed suit, leaving only eight states which had no such law: Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming. By the middle of 2006, only  Alaska, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and Nebraska were without safe haven laws. 10

The Hawaiian legislature passed a safe haven law, but the Governor Linda Lingle vetoed it. She wrote:

"I now believe that any good that might be accomplished by this bill is likely to be outweighed by the harm that it would cause."

"I am concerned, for example, that the individual dropping off the newborn would not be required to prove that she is the baby's parent, or have to provide even minimal information about the baby. This could jeopardize the child's health and make it exceedingly difficult for the extended families, or the child's father, to learn of the baby's whereabouts and to assert their interests in caring for the child. The abandoned baby would be prevented from ever learning about its medical and genealogical history."

"In Hawaii, the extended family is commonly recognized as an integral part of the nuclear family, and the Hawaiian cultural practice of open adoption called 'hanai' is still common practice. it violates the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion of an individual and a religious hospital that provides emergency care."

"This bill could have an adverse impact on such support systems."

"I believe that our focus should be on the long-term well being of the newborn, and that safe-haven measures like this one fall short in that critically important respect. Experts around the country are increasingly critical of such laws." 9

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Effectiveness:

The National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report in 2003-FEB which indicated that the laws did not fully solve the problem of newborn abandonment. For example, in California during the first 18 months after the state law came into effect, 20 babies were abandoned safely. 38 were simply discarded. Of the latter, 17 died -- almost half.

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute issued a report on 2003-MAR-11, based on:

"advice gathered nationwide from social workers, family law experts, state health officials, and the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as analyses of recent studies of women who kill their newborn infants." 3

Adam Pertman, of the Institute said:

"We see this phenomenon of....more and more children appearing at safe havens without a decrease in the number of unsafe abandonments." 7

They concluded that the laws have caused a number of undesirable results:

bullet''By providing a 'no hassle' route for ending parental responsibility, safe-haven laws encourage mothers to conceal their pregnancies, give birth unsafely, and leave their children anonymously, undermining established and effective child welfare and adoption policy.''

bulletThe laws give the impression that abandonment of babies is an acceptable practice. Pertman said:
"The statement by government that it's OK to abandon your child is something we condemn when we hear other countries do it. And here we are doing it." 7


bulletThe children who are abandoned generally have no hope of ever learning of their medical and genealogical history. However, legislation in some states allows the parent to drop off medical information anonymously.

bulletSome object to the laws because it allows only one parent to abandon a child, thus stripping all rights from the other parent.

Tom Atwood, of the National Council for Adoption, disagrees. He asserts that these laws are saving lives. He asked: "Just how many babies do these laws have to rescue from death in a Dumpster in order to be worthwhile?" 7

Other deficiencies have emerged:

bulletSome infants have remained unadoptable -- in legal limbo because there is no way to contact the other parent for permission to give the baby up for adoption.

bulletMany states pass safe haven acts, but do not provide adequate funding to advertise the provisions of the law to the public.

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Congressional action:

On 2001-JUL-2, Representative Melissa Hart (R-PA04) introduced bill titled the "Safe Havens Support Act of 2001" (H. R. 2018) to the 107th congress. It would have authorized"...States to use funds provided under the program of block grants to States for temporary assistance for needy families to support infant safe haven programs." The bill also required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct a study of infants who have been abandoned in the U.S. The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Educational Reform, but  died without being passed. 4

On 2002-JAN-17, President Bush signed the "Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments of 2001." (H.R. 2873). The law permits individual states to direct funding from the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program to support infant safe haven programs, launch publicity campaigns, provide related training and technical assistance. 11

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Additional information:

Anyone in the U.S. who wants to get in touch with a safe haven can call 1-877-796-HOPE (1-877-796-4673). This is a toll free call that can be accessed anywhere in the U.S. No record of the call will appear on your telephone bill. 5 A similar hot line is available at 1-877-440-2229, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 6

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References:

  1. "Choose your state for more information," Safe Place for Newborns, at: http://www.safeplacefornewborns.com/statemap.html 
  2. "Spread awareness of Newborn Safety Act," The Seattle times, 2002-ARP-24, at: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/
  3. David Crary, "'Safe haven' laws for newborns criticized: Report finds value in safeguards against child abandonment," Associated Press, 2003-MAR-10, at: http://www.boston.com/
  4. "Safe Havens Support Act of 2001 - HR 2018," The Library of Congress, at: http://thomas.loc.gov/
  5. Melissa Hammel, "Safe Haven Laws," The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, 2002-MAY-6, at: http://www.dailycollegian.com/
  6. "Safe Place for Newborns," Safe Place for Newborns of Minnesota, at: http://www.safeplacefornewborns.org/
  7. Steve Jordahl, " 'Safe Haven' Laws Questioned," 2003-MAR-11, Family News in Focus, at: http://www.family.org/
  8. Cara Buckley, "Safe-Haven Laws Fail to End Discarding of Babies," New York Times, 2007-JAN-13, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  9. Linda Lingle, "Statement of Objections to House Bill No. 133," 2003-JUN-20, at: http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/
  10. "National Adoption Report," Adoption Council, 2004-Fall, at: http://www.adoptioncouncil.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  11. "Frequently asked questions," Save Abandoned Babies Foundation© at: http://www.saveabandonedbabies.org/

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Copyright 2003 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-MAR-11
Latest update: 2010-OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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