Legislative Actions Trigger Fierce Debate
A spate of high-profile baby abandonments throughout the nation in recent years has led to a movement in some states to allow women to give away unwanted newborns at selected medical facilities.
Most recently, the Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that allows women to leave babies at certain medical facilities as an alternative to abandoning them in Dumpsters, drainage ditches or other places where they are likely to be injured or die.
“Rather than seeking a punitive mechanism,” said Republican state Rep. Terry Barnard, one of the sponsors of the bill, “we want to give someone who might abandon their baby an opportunity to bring it to a safe place. Our bottom line is to save babies that are abandoned.” Georgia’s Safe Place for Newborns Act of 2000 is similar to one enacted in Texas last year, and others like it are being considered in other states including California, Minnesota and New York.
Opponents offer options
Opponents of such laws say they promote abandonment of unwanted babies, strip fathers of their parental rights and make it impossible for people who want to adopt these babies — and the adoptees themselves — to find out relevant information about their medical histories.
“Women are very vulnerable when they deliver a child,” said state Rep. E. Childers, among the handful of legislators who opposed the bill. “I am concerned that there will be too many people in the wings to push her to give it up for adoption. They may be taken advantage of.”
Opponents also offer alternative solutions to the problem, such as a telephone hot line, care packages and shelters that can help a woman find other options besides abandonment.
Thirteen abandoned in Houston
Sponsors of the controversial measures say that prosecuting and punishing mothers for abandoning their newborns doesn’t deter women from this desperate act, and that infants who would otherwise be left to die can be saved.
Texas enacted its bill in 1999 after 13 babies were abandoned in the Houston area during a 10-month period. In Texas, new mothers may anonymously give away infants up to 30 days old to emergency medical technicians at firehouses or hospitals.
Under the Texas law, “a mother who abandons her child is still subject to prosecution. However, if prosecuted, the judge will instruct the jury that they must acquit her if she has followed the guidelines in the law,” said Marie Dixon, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. “We’re hoping that if prosecutors know this defense is out there, they won’t prosecute.”
Georgia’s bill differs significantly from the Texas law in several important respects. A woman would be exempt from prosecution for abandonment or child cruelty if she turns her infant over to a staff member on duty at birthing centers and medical facilities other than private physicians’ or dentists’ offices. But she must act quickly — within one week of the baby’s birth. Evidence of physical abuse, however, would make the mother liable for legal action.
California’s ‘Garden of Angels’
One person who is doggedly lobbying to decriminalize child abandonment in her state is Debi Faris of Yucaipa, Calif.
The 44-year-old housewife and mother of three has grieved for, and buried, 38 infants and children since 1996. They aren’t her own, but she claims the tiny discards, names them and buries them in her Garden of Angels, which originally comprised 44 plots within Desert Lawn cemetery in Calimesa that she and her husband, Mark, purchased with their own money.
“I keep hoping we will never have to have another service,” Faris said. Yet the little bodies keep turning up, and the “cemetery within a cemetery” has now grown to 95 plots with the financial help of other donors. “This is our gift of love.”
At Faris’ urging, state Sen. James L. Brulte proposed legislation legalizing abandonment — but only if the parent hasn’t clearly expressed an intention to return for the child. His bill, which will be debated later this month, would allow women to leave unwanted babies with any employee on duty at a police station, firehouse, social welfare office, child protective agency or county hospital emergency room. Under existing California law, it’s a crime to abandon or desert a child under the age of 14.
“This bill was created for the woman who has kept her pregnancy secret and does not want any help. She doesn’t want anyone to know, she just wants out,” said Faris.
But others disagree
But fellow Californian Debbe Magnusen, who’s been a foster mother to 32 children and adopted five, thinks there are other ways to help mothers of unwanted babies than to decriminalize their abandonment.
Magnusen, who started Project Cuddle in 1990 to equip patrol cars with cuddly toys to soothe children taken into protective custody by the police, expanded the organization’s mission six years later to include the Baby Rescue Program for women thinking of abandoning their babies.
The program’s 24-hour crisis hot line now counsels women nationwide who are “frightened,” who “really love their families and are afraid of letting them down,” said Magnusen. The women range in age from 12 to 43, and many “aren’t prepared for pregnancy at all” and “feel they have no hope.”
With 1,500 volunteers around the country, the Baby Rescue Program has now prevented 192 abandonments by providing callers with emotional support and alternative solutions.
‘Busy rescuing babies’
“Sometimes it’s as simple as getting the girl to tell her mother she’s pregnant,” said Magnusen. “Then she can work with mom toward responsible solutions.”
The hot line counselors also offer callers practical help, such as advice on how to get a high school diploma, a driver’s license or where to find a facility that assists unwed mothers during pregnancy, or send a “care package” of baby items.
According to Project Cuddle’s figures, of women who are counseled before abandonment, 60 percent end up keeping their babies, and 35 percent put them up for adoption.
“This is the only [hot line] we know of nationwide doing this work,” Magnusen said. “We don’t have time to get involved in [issues such as] legislation. We’re so busy rescuing babies.”
Rights of fathers, grandparents
“These laws help legislators feel good about themselves, that they’ve done something to solve this horrible problem,” said Ron Morgan, who is on the executive committee of Bastard Nation.
Morgan is concerned about the impact that legalized abandonment laws will have on parental rights, because the decision is entirely in the hands of the mother.
“There is growing awareness of the role of fathers. There are also issues of grandparents,” said Morgan, whose Washington-based organization “advocates for the civil and human rights of adult citizens who were adopted as children.”
“Everyone has a right to their identity, and these laws violate that right because they set up a mechanism for anonymous abandonment,” Morgan said. “Worldwide, anonymous abandonment is usually sanctioned in times of civil war or great national trauma. It is chilling that at a time of unrivaled prosperity in our country, we are sanctioning this as a solution.
“There’s no guarantee that mothers in crisis will avail themselves of this solution,” Morgan said. “And, since none of the laws have a mechanism built in to track the problem, there’s no way to tell whether [they] will work.”
For this reason, he thinks a better option would be to open shelters where women can receive prenatal care and be provided with a full range of legal options.
Number of abandonments unknown
The Safe Place for Newborns Act of 2000 was approved 153-15 by the Georgia House. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Roy Barnes. Barnes’ office said he does not comment on pending legislation, and it is too soon to tell how similar proposals will fare elsewhere.
But the issue promises to be contentious, in part because neither side has reliable statistics to bolster its arguments.
A newly completed Department of Health and Human Services survey found 105 media reports of abandoned infants nationwide in 1998; 33 of them were dead when discovered. It is unknown whether there were more abandoned babies whose bodies were never found.
To address the dearth of data, Lee is readying federal legislation that would provide grants for local police and social service agencies to track statistics on abandoned newborns. A proponent of the decriminalization of baby abandonment, she also launched a billboard campaign in her home state, urging mothers of unwanted babies to take them to a hospital.
Since the Texas law went into effect last September, one abandoned baby was found in a hospital bathroom about a month ago, according to spokeswoman Dixon, but no babies have been turned in under the terms of the statute.