Baby Drop-off Boxes Renew Debate Over Infant Surrender

While supporters say the anonymous boxes save lives, other say funds would be better spent on preventing unwanted pregnancies.
(Photo: Getty Images)
May 18, 2016· 7 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

“I’ve always had a passion for babies,” Monica Kelsey, a 43-year-old firefighter and medic, explained. The mother of three is an active pro-life speaker who travels around the world promoting a no-exception stance on abortion.

During a public speaking tour in Capetown, South Africa, Kelsey came across a church with a baby hatch through which mothers could deposit their unwanted infants. That’s when she had what she describes as a “moment of clarity.”

“I was so intrigued because this ‘baby safe’ was giving women a completely anonymous way to surrender their child without any face-to-face interaction,” Kelsey told TakePart—and so began her latest project: baby boxes.

In April, Kelsey’s home state of Indiana began putting up baby boxes. At a glance, the matte black boxes installed flush with the brick walls of fire departments look like places to drop off outgoing mail. But big block letters inform passersby that the boxes are an extension of the state’s Safe Haven Infant Protect Act, which allows adults to surrender an infant up to 45 days old with impunity. The two-foot-long padded boxes are climate controlled and automatically trigger a silent alarm, alerting emergency responders when a baby has been surrendered.

Infant surrender is a personal issue for Kelsey. She was conceived when her biological mother was raped in 1972. The woman considered having an illegal abortion (she got pregnant before abortion became legal under Roe v. Wade in 1973). Instead, she left Kelsey at a hospital a few hours after she was born. Kelsey was adopted and learned about her birth mother after she had her records unsealed as an adult.

“This is where my drive comes from,” Kelsey said.

So far, Kelsey’s nonprofit, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, has added two boxes at firehouses in Indiana, with the first box installed at the end of April and another in May. The boxes, which each cost $1,500 to $2,000, are privately funded by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization. The group has pledged to install 100 boxes across the state at fire departments, police stations, and hospitals.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted safe haven legislation, which allows parents to hand over an infant anonymously and without fear of legal repercussions. The age limitations and applicable locations vary from state to state, but typically infants must be between one and 90 days old, and police stations, fire departments, and hospitals are designated as drop-off locations. Most states require that a parent surrender the infant directly to a staff worker.

Texas was the first to introduce such legislation in 1999 under Gov. George W. Bush, following 13 infant-abandonment cases, including three deaths, in 10 months. Texas’ law is dubbed the Baby Moses Project, linking the concept firmly to faith-based services. Every state enacted a similar law by 2008.

Tracking the effectiveness of safe haven laws remains a challenge. There is no federal organization that documents the number of illegally abandoned infants or babies surrendered at safe haven drop-offs. Indiana, which enacted its safe haven legislation in 2001, has had 31 infants safely surrendered in the past 15 years, according to a spokesperson from the state Department of Child Services. The organization was unable to provide TakePart with the number of infants abandoned in unsafe conditions, such as in trash cans or on doorsteps, over the same time period.

Dawn Geras, president of Save Abandoned Babies in Illinois, estimates that roughly 3,100 infants have been relinquished since 1999, while 1,315 have been left illegally. Some states simply do not have the resources in place to count safe surrenders, and infants who have died as a result of unsafe abandonment are folded into homicide statistics and not regarded separately. Geras, who helped draft Illinois’ safe haven legislation in 2000, keeps tabs on the state and national statistics herself, compiling information from state records and news stories.

Geras considers safe haven laws a huge success and shares in Kelsey’s sentiment that one life saved makes the entire project worthwhile. However, she believes that the box program is a step in the wrong direction. Geras estimates that 25 percent of the women who come into Illinois hospitals—when greeted by a warm, friendly nurse who offers confidential medical care—agree to be checked out. In some cases, that can result in a woman choosing to keep her baby or selecting a traditional adoption plan.

“You put in a box, and you strip that opportunity,” Geras said.

In 2012, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child also condemned the use of baby boxes, which are common across Europe, China, and South Korea. Along with concerns that an infant could be kidnapped and placed in a box by a person other than a parent, the U.N. argued that the anonymity of the boxes violates the group’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all children have the right to know their origins. For example, Kelsey was able to unseal her birth records when she turned 18, but the box program would make doing so far more challenging.

Kelsey counters that for some women, the total anonymity is necessary, pointing to infants left near fire departments or outside hospitals as evidence that some women are reluctant to speak with authority figures.

“They’re laying their babies at the doors of these facilities and walking away,” she said. “That says a lot for a young mother who’s trying to do the right thing. She’s telling us she needs more.”

While Kelsey believes that the boxes are the solution for these women, critics argue that the very nature of safe haven laws leaves questions unanswered about what those mothers need.

“The focus on saving babies does not confront the circumstances that lead girls and women to relinquish infants at safe havens,” Laury Oaks, the chair of the department of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice, wrote in an email to TakePart. Oaks explained that the legal anonymity ensured by safe haven laws limits our understanding of the women and girls who use them.

“Safe haven proponents also fail to challenge, and indeed underwrite, the power inequities involved in women’s and girls’ consent to sex, their access to nonjudgmental sexuality and reproductive health services—including contraception, abortion, and adoption—and social support and parenting resources,” Oaks added.

In Indiana, those services and resources are becoming increasingly scarce.

Indiana law requires sexual education in schools to promote abstinence only, despite evidence that comprehensive sexual education—including information about contraceptives and abstinence—has proved effective in reducing pregnancy and rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Indiana also has some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country. Minors in Indiana must receive parental consent to obtain an abortion, all women must undergo an 18-hour waiting period before receiving one, and all abortion providers must have admitting privileges with a local hospital.

In March, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill prohibiting women from terminating a pregnancy based on the sex of the child or “diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Abortion providers that knowingly terminate a pregnancy based on abnormalities or gender face sanction for “wrongful death.” Indiana is the second state in the nation—after North Dakota—to prohibit abortions based on fetal abnormalities. The bill also requires that aborted fetuses be “interred or cremated.” Those costs could be passed on to the patient, making the procedure a less viable option.

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky has filed a lawsuit against the state with help from the ACLU, arguing that these abortion restrictions are unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade.

“I can’t tell you why a person would put a child into a baby box,” Ali Slocum, ‎the communications director at Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, told TakePart. Planned Parenthood does not have an official stance on baby boxes, as it does not provide prenatal care. “I do know that Indiana is not seen nationally as a place where people are being taken care of by their government,” she said.

The state of Indiana has consistently cut funds for Medicaid, the largest health insurer for children, adults, and people with disabilities. Slocum also pointed to Pence’s October decision to divert $3.5 million in state funds from Indiana’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—which provides cash and supportive programs for families with children under 18—to crisis pregnancy center Real Alternatives, which counsels women against abortion.

Pregnancy crisis centers have been routinely found to give pregnant women inaccurate information about the risks of abortion, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Real Alternatives did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment.

“Indiana’s support for crisis pregnancy centers signals another connection to antiabortion advocacy in the state,” Oaks wrote. “Restrictions on reproductive rights—including the issues of comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraception, and access to abortion care services—are symbolically and practically damaging to all women.”

Legal scholar Carol Sanger unpacked some of the more symbolic messages inherent in safe haven laws in 2006 with her article “Infant Safe Haven Laws: Legislating in the Culture of Life.” Her analysis contends that demonizing abortion leads to pregnancy denial, which can in turn lead to infant abandonment.

“Why didn’t she have an abortion? She couldn’t have an abortion because that would be the biggest sin,” Sanger told TakePart. “It’s really sad that a girl would think it’s better—that it could be imagined—that it would be better to deliver a baby and drop it in a toilet than to have an abortion eight months earlier.”

But while abortion is legal and infanticide is not, Sanger notes that for many, abortion and murder are one and the same.

“This is about saving the lives of abandoned children,” Kelsey said. When a woman calls the hotline number found on a Safe Haven Baby Box for assistance, she’s provided with parenting plans, given the names of adoption centers, or directed toward a pregnancy crisis center, like Real Alternatives. “This box is literally a last-resort option.... What we don’t want is a woman to call our hotline, say, ‘No, no, no—I’m not doing that,’ and us not have a final leg.”

But the debate continues about whether these boxes serve as an alternative for unwanted infants or instead contribute to the rate of abandonment.

Geras worries that installing the boxes sends a signal to women thinking about using one that surrendering an infant is shameful.

“[The boxes imply] that what you’re doing is dark and needs to be hidden. You can’t show your face. You’re just escaping the scene of the crime,” she said. “Our hearts go out to those moms. We want to make it easy for them. We want to reassure them.... It breaks my heart to go backward.”