PUBLIC HEALTH/Abandonment bills attempt to save lives
Newborn abandonment has touched nearly every city in the nation. It usually has the same characteristics — a hidden pregnancy and a panicked delivery. In addition, many have the same tragic outcome — an infant death. A number of state legislators are now working on bills to protect newborns, as well as parents, and prevent infant deaths from occurring.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that, in 1998, 105 babies were abandoned in public places; of those, 33 died. Officials have reported the following cases: * an Allentown, Pa., woman placed her newborn baby in a garbage bag and left him outside in freezing weather; * a newborn baby girl was found floating in the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minn.; and * a Houston girl gave birth in the restroom of her high school and then dumped the baby in a trash bin.
The reasons for abandonment vary, but state legislators are working to prevent the resulting deaths by giving parents with unwanted newborns another option. Legislation that has been proposed and/or passed in 11 states, including Texas, California, Georgia, Indiana and New York, allows parents to leave their babies with staff at hospitals, fire stations, police stations or social service agencies with no questions asked. Parents also could avoid prosecution for abandoning their babies, provided that they leave their newborns with a staff member, not merely inside the facility.
The legislation has become a hot issue around the nation, with supporters and dissenters speaking out. For example, Georgia’s Safe Place for Newborns bill sparked discussion on both sides.
State Representative George Grindley, one of the authors of the bill, says it provides assistance for parents who do not want to keep their babies and who are unaware of or unwilling to participate in other options such as adoption.
Although most of the bills stipulate “no questions asked,” Georgia emergency workers, such as firefighters or hospital personnel, who will be accepting newborns who are dropped off at their facilities, will be trained to ask a few questions, Grindley says. Learning at least some of the parent’s medical history will help with a future adoption. But, he says, the most important task is to save the child’s life and worry about the details later. “If the baby doesn’t live, it doesn’t matter who the parents are or were,” Grindley says.
Nancy Becker, Georgia State Director for Bastard Nation, a Des Moines, Wash.-based nonprofit organization for adoptees, says that is not enough. “If asking questions is not part of the law, hospital workers won’t ask, especially if the mother is panicked at the drop-off,” she says.
According to Becker, the newborn abandonment bills undermine the efforts of child protective services agencies and adoption organizations. “No baby should be abandoned, but the quick-fix, feel-good laws don’t really solve the problem,” she says. “It’s just slapping a Band-Aid on it.”
Becker suggests that more time and money should be dedicated to researching the reasons why babies are abandoned, gathering data about the incidents and compiling statistics. “It’s difficult to solve the problem when you don’t know what the cause is,” she notes.
Additionally, she emphasizes that governments should educate young people about abstinence, birth control and adoption. “Prevention is the best cure,” she says.
Grindley says that Georgia officials are working to develop new programs to assist pregnant women with adoption and pre-natal care, but they still value the Safe Place for Newborns bill. Since the bill was tabled in March and has not been legalized, officials have not been able to measure its effectiveness. But that does not undermine its importance, according to Grindley. “At the end of the day, this is a safety net,” he says. “And if it saves one life, it is worth it.”