Until now it's been just chance that saves the life of an abandoned newborn: A neighbor hears a thin wail when she lifts the dumpster's lid or a jogger stops when he sees a bundle move beneath a bush.
Advocates nationwide cried out for laws and policies to allow distraught new mothers to leave infants in a safe place without fear of prosecution. Texas passed the first law last September. Mobile, Ala., and Minneapolis-St. Paul have pilot programs. Now 24 other states have proposed legislation.
While the programs vary in detail, their purpose is to prevent injury or death of the babies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 105 babies were left in public places in 1998 and 33 of those were dead. In 1991, it was 65 babies left and eight dead.
Family law attorney Patricia H. Stiller favors the concept of no prosecution for abandoning parents who bring infants to a safe place. "Usually those parents have troubles enough in their lives without law enforcement adding to them," said Stiller, a member of St Paul Lutheran Church, Morgantown, W.Va.
"To answer those who say it will increase the abandoning of babies: No — it will increase our knowledge base of the number of babies who are abandoned because more will survive," she added.
It's too soon to gauge the programs' effectiveness. So far five mothers have used the Alabama program started in 1998. None has taken advantage of the Texas law, although nine babies were abandoned statewide.
The Twin Cities program hasn't yet received an infant either. But that's OK with Anne Kettler of Fairview University Medical Center, an ELCA affiliate and a participant in the pilot effort. "I hope the program never is used," said the public relations coordinator who helps promote it, along with the "1st call for help" hotline sponsored by the United Way. Kettler believes news about the program might send a message to panicked pregnant women and girls that people want to help them — and their babies.
"People want to do something about these [abandoned] babies," she said. "Legislation will be good, even from the taxpayers' viewpoint. Why should we spend money to prosecute these families?"
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers