Book Reviews & Essays

A Safe Haven for Whom?

Review of 'Giving Up Baby,' by Laury Oaks

A version of this article was originally published September/October 2015 in Pacific Standard

On Christmas Eve, 2007, a blond woman in her late 30s arrived at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, with a crying newborn in her arms. The woman had given birth alone at home and tied off the umbilical cord with a rubber band. Now she wanted to leave the baby, wrapped in a T-shirt and towel, at the hospital. After answering a few questions—no prenatal care, unclear paternity—the woman, in the words of a Hartford Courant article, vanished.

This striking scene, recounted in Laury Oaks’ new book, Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice, was made possible by Connecticut’s safe haven law, versions of which were passed in all 50 states between 1999 and 2009. Enacted in response to a perceived crisis of infant abandonment in dumpsters and restrooms, the laws allow women to relinquish babies in designated locations while avoiding criminal charges. The details of the laws vary from state to state, but they share two characteristics: the intent to save babies from a dreadful fate and the guarantee of anonymity for the mother.

At first blush, it is easy to see why these laws passed so readily: They promised a benefit that no politician could decline to champion. According to Oaks, advocates also strategically ensured that the laws had no budgetary strings attached, in order to speed passage. They received an unusual amount of bipartisan support. But they also attracted an eclectic line-up of opponents. Conservatives feared the laws could promote promiscuity; men’s rights groups fretted about the rights of fathers; adoption advocates protested that the children would be denied access to their genetic histories.

Feminist critiques, meanwhile, could fill a book, and Oaks, a feminist studies professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara, has written it. From the outset, she aligns herself with the so-called reproductive justice movement. The term pro-choice, coined by white feminists, is bound tightly to the narrow question of abortion rights and, to some ears, suffers from connotations of consumerism, as though deciding whether to bear a child is no more serious than choosing a brand of nail polish. The more expansive concept of reproductive justice was first advanced in the 1990s by women of color, whose reproductive lives were as likely to be shaped by poverty and coercive sterilization as by lack of abortion access. Quoting another scholar, Oaks defines the philosophy as “the right to have an abortion, the right to have children, and the right to parent those children.” Using this framework, Oaks argues for reforming safe haven laws, on the grounds that they ignore the circumstances that lead to abandonment while reinforcing inequities and stereotypes about who is fit to be a mother.

But Giving Up Baby is not a work of social science so much as cultural criticism. Oaks’ chief method is analysis of the laws’ press coverage and publicity campaigns. She evidently conducted no interviews with advocates or with safe-haven moms. Instead, she offers close readings of newspaper articles, websites, and low-budget promotional videos. Sometimes this narrowly targeted approach leaves conspicuous gaps that cry out for more data or further investigation. To take the most glaring example, she provides few figures on the extent to which the laws have actually been used. But taken on its own terms—Oaks bills her project as a feminist analysis drawing upon “advocacy and media discourses”—the book is largely successful, consistently absorbing, and usually persuasive, at least to a reader who shares her basic political sympathies.

Oaks begins with some fascinating history, reviewing the ways that infant abandonment has always been enmeshed with sexual protocol and social norms. In 19th-century Italy, for example, owing largely to the stigma of illegitimacy, babies were discarded at epidemic levels, their lives jeopardized by wild dogs in cities and pigs in rural areas. During that century, Italy as well as other parts of Europe and the United States established asylums for these unfortunates, who were, with some poetic poignancy, referred to as foundlings. Mortality rates inside these institutions were so high that one anthropologist described them as “highly effective agents of infanticide.”

In modern America, where Oaks focuses her attention, abandonment seems to be rare. Though the numbers are not comprehensively tracked, Oaks cites one 2001 study, which estimated that 105 babies were left in public places in 1998. The same year, 3.94 million American babies were born.

But even a single case of abandonment is difficult to shrug off. The earliest safe haven laws grew from the advocacy efforts of a handful of passionate individuals who were haunted by stories of dead babies. In Yucaipa, California, in 1996, Debi Faris founded the organization Garden of Angels to provide funerals for abandoned babies. “This is what we’ve become as a society,” she told Time. “It is easy to throw our children away.” Everyone can agree that a discarded baby is a sign of grave social ills, but different worldviews emphasize starkly disparate maladies. For a progressive feminist, the problem lies at the intersection of unevenly distributed resources and a lack of access to contraception and abortion; conservative Christians find the root causes in sex outside of marriage and disrespect for innocent life.

Starting with Texas in 1999, safe haven laws swiftly developed into an irresistible trend among state legislatures. Each state stipulates a different window, ranging from three days to one year after birth, during which a baby can be surrendered at a safe haven site, such as a hospital, police department, or fire station. The baby must be unharmed and handed directly to a person. In some states the person receiving the baby is required to ask a few questions for the baby’s health records, though the mother is not required to answer. The mother is not offered any services or support. Oaks includes very little data—and, to be fair, reporting is spotty—but the National Safe Haven Alliance claims that more than 1,000 infants have been turned over to safe havens since their inception.

In essence, safe haven surrenders are a quick path to adoption, without the planning and paperwork, and without the “open” process that has become standard in the U.S. The convenience and anonymity are selling points: A woman without the foresight to plan an adoption, or who may be keeping her pregnancy a secret, might choose a safe haven instead of abandonment. But critics argue that there are good reasons for the red tape and safeguards of formal adoption: to promote thoughtful decision-making, and to provide adoptees with essential self-knowledge. Oaks quotes the radical adoptee advocacy group Bastard Nation, which describes the laws as “anti-adoptee, anti-adoption, anti-child, anti-woman, and anti-family.”

Of course, proponents believe that safe havens are a lesser evil compared to abandonment. The trouble is that we don’t know who is using the laws or why. Women who “dump” their babies are typically panicked and may suffer from mental-health problems. It is a considerable stretch to assume that these women would both be aware of safe havens and have the presence of mind to use them. Instead, it’s possible that women who resort to safe havens would have otherwise kept the child, opted for traditional adoption, or even had an abortion.

Though safe haven laws have no official connection to abortion, Oaks contends that the rhetoric surrounding them muddles the distinction between the fetus and the baby, and privileges both over the experience of the mother. Scrutinizing various publicity materials, Oaks finds that advocates present safe havens as the only acceptable outcome for an unplanned pregnancy. The propaganda not only skirts the possibility of abortion, it doesn’t place any confidence in women (usually portrayed as young and single) who may want to raise their own children despite difficult circumstances. These advocacy efforts, Oaks argues, send an ironic message about maternal love: “Paradoxically, safe haven laws and advocacy urge women to anonymously and permanently relinquish their motherhood status as a way to demonstrate maternal responsibility.”

Oaks bristles at the way the laws treat women. Safe haven babies are prized on the adoption market, in part because healthy American newborns are scarce, and in part, Oaks suggests, because some adoptive parents prefer to have no connection to or knowledge of the birth mother. Thus, safe haven moms, in her view, are treated as vessels for the precious infants, not as people in their own right with their own needs. Oaks denounces a system that assigns the mother “a positive social value only upon relinquishment of a healthy newborn, fail[s] to ensure that she has mental health and postpartum care, and leave[s] her with a stigmatized, secret identity.”

Safe haven moms, by definition, are anonymous, so it’s rare to hear their stories. Oaks did turn up a few online posts purportedly authored by such women. As “Melissa” tells it on the Baby Love Child blog, she gave birth alone at home at age 16 and called an adoption agency, which referred her to a hospital’s safe haven site. She relinquished her son without fully understanding the law. “This law is full of holes,” she wrote. “I have custody of my son now … but the battle of getting my newborn back was horrible.”

Oaks skillfully navigates the complex web of issues, from class politics to notions of maternal love, that intersect with safe haven laws. But her analytical vigor is at times misplaced: She spends pages dissecting the details of relatively obscure publicity materials, occasionally divining overwrought connections. She might have profitably devoted less energy to interpreting YouTube videos and more to grounding her analysis in empirical research. Another sort of author might have hunted for more data at the state level about trends in safe haven use and abandonment, or tried to track down moms to interview.

In any case, she does not promote repealing safe haven laws, but proposes commonsense, modest supplementation. She advocates greater support for reproductive health services “within and beyond safe haven laws,” such as offering the women who relinquish babies postpartum care, mental-health services, and referrals to other resources.

And yet even an ideal re-design of safe haven laws would be a somewhat hollow achievement, given that the policy directly affects so few people. Indeed, just as abandoned babies reveal a much larger constellation of underlying issues, safe haven laws highlight the inadequacies of our response. Reforming them could be a starting point for a more humane approach, but it would still leave many more crucial hurdles to reproductive justice unaddressed. In Texas, where Governor George W. Bush signed the first safe haven bill, state legislators recently passed a law that (if upheld in court) could result in the closure of about half of the state’s abortion clinics.


Source: Pacific Standard

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