On New Year’s Eve, police say, a 15-year-old abandoned her infant in a North Philadelphia dumpster. She was arrested after the baby died.
Some in the community — including recent voices in the Inquirer — have said this death could have been prevented through Safe Haven laws that already offer a comprehensive answer to the problem of an unwanted child by offering women locations where they can surrender their infants without the threat of punishment. These laws do sound like the solution: The baby can be quickly adopted, and the woman is freed of prosecution. But in reality, they are a prime example of legislation that is hostile to women and children.
To write good health law, the underlying social, economic, and ethical issues must be understood. Yet Safe Haven laws rarely have input from infanticide experts or bioethicists who are uniquely positioned to evaluate ethically fraught dilemmas. As a result, these laws fail to meet the needs of at-risk women, who often face intolerable social or economic consequences from being pregnant.
U.S. culture — and by extension, U.S. health policy — is rife with judgment that pressures women into motherhood and discourages them from safely surrendering their unwanted infants. These women (often scarred by abuse or neglect) are ashamed or in denial, trapped in a healthcare system that fails to provide affordable and anonymous delivery — leading them to give birth alone at home or in a public restroom.
Yet Safe Haven laws, such as those in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, require the child to be free of injury or neglect in order to grant the mother immunity from prosecution for abandonment. Interpreting these standards of injury and neglect is often left to officials, in effect creating a “gotcha” clause: You got yourself into this situation, and we’re not going to make it easy on you to get out of it.
What’s more, Safe Haven laws offer support only during narrow windows of time after delivery, some as short as 72 hours, and vary on acceptable drop-off points. Some states allow surrenders at police stations, while others only permit surrenders in the ER. This can be confusing for women who are only vaguely aware of Safe Haven and trying to do the right thing.
Some states even require a face-to-face meeting in an ER where nurses are instructed to ask the mother for her name and medical history. ERs are filled with uncertainty, lack privacy, require transportation, and have unknown time delays. If legislators offer easier paths to surrender — such as calling 911 and anonymously surrendering the child to a paramedic in a location that is safe for all involved — they’d allow more women to use the law.
Other states have left statutes on the books that contradict Safe Haven, such as a law that criminalizes the concealment of a pregnancy. Young women have recently been prosecuted under this statute, which is misleading — lulling women into a false sense of protection only to be criminalized.
Policymakers should directly engage with community members when they write laws. Creative and tested methods of engagement already exist, such as the Community Bioethics Forum, a Connecticut-based advisory committee comprised of diverse members of the public who provide informed, thoughtful perspectives on complex health policy. This paradigm has been in use for more than 10 years, resulting in compassionate policy enhancements — like community suggestions to make better use of social media and offer bilingual services — as well as increased trust between the public and policymakers.
Safe Haven laws also are poorly publicized due to stigma around sex, yet laws can only be used if at-risk populations are informed. For instance, pediatricians could discuss Safe Haven with adolescents during annual checkups — with both young women and young men. After all, young women often first disclose their pregnancies to their boyfriends.
Of course, there are broader health policies that are already proven to reduce the numbers of infanticide, such as sex education, awareness campaigns to destigmatize unplanned pregnancies, and affordable, anonymous, and comprehensive women’s health care. Yet these policies, often politically charged, will require long, tumultuous processes to enact, leaving Safe Haven laws to cover the gap in the meantime — a poor substitute for compassionate, commonsense, affordable health coverage.
Current Safe Haven laws suggest an intolerance for the welfare of at-risk women and therefore a lack of interest in protecting their babies. Until the term “safe haven” applies to both at-risk children and their mothers, it’s ill-advised to tout these laws as legislative successes.
Lori Bruce is an associate director at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. The views expressed in this article are hers and not necessarily those of her employer.