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Opinion: Baby Safe Haven laws — What we do and don’t know after 20 years

Richard Uhrlaub writes that though well intentioned, anonymous drop-off measures fail to consider the crucial details of adoption -- and we don't know if they actually save lives

Almost everyone agrees that saving the life of a newborn, especially if the baby’s mother is in crisis and thinking of harming her infant, is a top priority. So there’s really no downside to the Safe Haven laws, enacted since 1999 in Colorado and nationally, that allow for a baby to be anonymously left in the care of a hospital, urgent care or fire station employee.

Right?

The Colorado legislature seems inclined to agree, as a bill that mandates education of minors about Safe Haven laws as part of comprehensive sex education programs already has passed the Senate and now moves on to the House. Testimony in committee revealed compelling scenarios in support of the measure: a baby thrown over a fence; another infant suffocated by a young mother who pushed a rock down the baby’s throat; and on the positive side, a lovely teenager, one of the first Colorado Safe Haven babies, raised in a stable, loving home.

Richard Uhrlaub

Last year, legislation increased the number of Safe Haven facilities in Colorado to about 950 from about 350. That’s almost as many locations as marijuana dispensaries in the state, and more than double the number of Starbucks and Walmarts combined. How could it be any more convenient?

But since we now know that relinquishment and adoption is a lifelong process rather than a one-time event, there are, in fact, many downsides to anonymously dropping off a baby.

For starters, the anonymity of the Safe Haven process subverts truth and transparency in adoption. It circumvents existing relinquishment and adoption best practices, can deny the opportunity for kinship adoption and could sever the child from vital medical history and heritage.

Safe Haven also denies the mother a chance for counseling, may abrogate a father’s rights and does nothing to address factors that may have created the situation, such as an abusive partner or spouse, poverty, immigration issues or addiction.  

Proponents might counter that, since 1999, more than 3,500 babies (60 in Colorado) have been relinquished through this life-saving option, which outweighs any of those downsides. But consider one key question: How many of these babies were truly in danger?

No one knows. But statistics analyzed by childtrends.org indicate no significant drop in infanticide rates between 2000 and 2016, the same period during which Safe Haven laws were enacted in various states.   

Santa Clara University law professor Michelle Oberman, who has written extensively about mothers who murder their babies shortly after birth, told the Chicago Tribune in 2016 that those mothers fit a common profile — single, isolated, without prenatal care and in their late teens to early 20s. They are not usually suicidal or mentally ill, but instead are immersed in a severe form of avoidance and denial.

Oberman says the odds are low that a young woman in this panicked mindset would be able to collect herself after the birth and travel with her baby to a drop-off point. Their best hope, she says, is a confidant of the mother who realizes she needs help and tells someone else.

Yet proponents of Safe Haven laws push ahead with an expansive agenda. Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania recently enacted “baby box” laws, which allow a mother or someone else to drop off an unwanted infant in a heated, ventilated box (picture a revolving small package bin at the post office) from outside a building without even a face-to-face transfer to another human being. Michigan’s governor rightly vetoed such a measure in 2018.  

Safe Havens may have a necessary place as a less-than-ideal policy of last resort. The current bill will likely become law. But please, Colorado legislators, when the “baby box” bill is introduced at some point in the not-too-distant future, draw the line. Say, “Enough is enough.”

Adoptees are not Goodwill donations.    

Rich Uhrlaub, M.Ed., serves as president of Adoption Search Resource Connection. He was adopted and raised by devoted parents in Denver and connected with birth family members in 1995.  Contact him at info@asrconline.org.

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