The XX Factor

The Trouble With Safe Havens

They need a maximum number of options.


In July, it happened in Pasadena, Maryland. In April, Ohio. Two years ago, it was a well-publicized case in Mesa, Arizona. Every few months, news of a baby abandoned by the side of the road or in an alleyway dumpster surfaces, leading concerned parties to wonder what might have led the child’s parents to such dire straits. How could a mother (and with the rare exception, it is always a mother) do such a thing?

Safe haven laws, which cropped up in every single state between the late ’90s and early aughts, were proposed as a straightforward alternative for mothers who hadn’t planned an adoption or who’d gotten pregnant and given birth in secret. The laws allow parents to drop off a baby at specific institutions, like hospitals and police stations, with anonymity and no legal upshot.

From a harm reduction standpoint, safe haven laws are an ideal way to prevent infant death and mistreatment without ignoring the reality that some mothers, for one reason or another, won’t consider formal adoption or parenthood viable options. But a recent book by Laury Oaks, chair of the feminist studies department at University of California–Santa Barbara, argues that they fall short of true reproductive justice.

In Giving Up Baby, Oaks digs into how safe haven advocates fortify stereotypes of marginalized women as unfit mothers, directing their information toward young women, women in poverty, and women of color. Safe havens preclude both babies and mothers from getting critical care, too. From Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s review in Pacific Standard:

… 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. … 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.”

Anti-abortion organizations have lobbied for safe haven laws as a means of preventing infanticide and offering another route for women who might have otherwise chosen abortion. One extreme development in safe haven options, Indiana’s pilot program for the kind of baby drop-boxes that currently exist in some countries in Europe and East Asia, is the pet project of pro-lifer Monica Kelsey. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has condemned these boxes on the grounds that children have the right to identify their parents recommending that countries instead direct their resources toward family planning and the root causes of child abandonment: economic insecurity, inadequate child care, and the stigma of out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Though there is no evidence to suggest that they reduce rates of infanticide, and though their advocates have leaned on anti-choice rhetoric, safe havens should exist for the simple reason that women deserve the widest possible range of options for making decisions about pregnancy and parenthood. But some improvements Oaks offers, such as offering more social services for women who drop their babies off at safe havens, could compromise the system’s anonymity and create barriers to entry, negating its raison d’être as a seamless last resort. Instead of targeting “at-risk” women with safe haven lit, advocates should package information about safe havens with existing educational materials about contraception, adoption, sexual health, and resources for parents in schools, doctors’ offices, and social service organizations.

Of course, any safe haven policy that doesn’t address the complex circumstances that lead women to use them is largely futile. Women choose safe havens when there are no better options available, and in many cases, because they lacked adequate access to contraception or prenatal health care visits, where doctors might have explained the adoption process or referred them to other social services. Women need cheaper and more accessible ways to prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies, and they need more support as mothers should they choose to give birth. They need these things more than they need easier ways to abandon their babies.