“Dropbox babies”: mothers who deliver their babies to mailboxes in the US
BBC News, Arizona
Ending the constitutional right to abortion played a significant role in the outcome of the recent midterm elections in the United States.
One argument used when the Supreme Court considered striking it down was that an alternative to abortion could be found in safe harbor laws for newborns.
These laws, which exist in every state, allow mothers with problems abandon their babies anonymously in designated places shortly after birth without being brought before the court.
This is the story of three people deeply affected by these safe harbor laws.
It was a dark and damp winter night on one of the endless plains of Arizona. Michelle was driving on a secluded road when she suddenly stopped.
“I was in so much pain that I couldn’t go back to go to the hospital,” he recalls. Near a stream, about 30 km from the city, Michelle gave birth in her car.
“It was terrifying. I remember just praying. I called my mother… I wanted my mother“.
While Michelle was giving birth, her oldest daughter was sleeping in the back seat. In the dim light, with her cell phone dead, Michelle sat for 15 minutes, her newborn baby wrapped in a blanket on her lap.
She looked at the girl, her gaze resting on her baby’s face. Then he started the engine and drove fast.
Michelle didn’t tell anyone she was pregnant. I was too scared. The father of her young daughter was unpredictable. Divorced from him and after leaving the relationship with the father of her new baby, she felt cornered.
He stopped at the nearest hospital. Michelle was aware of Arizona’s newborn safe harbor law that allowed her to anonymously “surrender” her daughter without prosecution, as long as the baby is not injured.
Then she ran to the reception with the girl in her arms.
“I asked to speak to the delivery department. They came to speak to me and I said, ‘I think leaving her is going to be the best option.’ I just wanted her to be safe from the father of my eldest daughter.”
Michelle handed the baby to the nurses. He knew that the girl would now be adopted.
He was in the hospital less than three minutes.
What are they? the mailboxes for babies?
Michelle handed her baby over to doctors, but they can also be left in a special mailbox or drawer at a hospital or fire station
In medieval Europe, so-called “foundling wheels” on the side of hospitals and churches served the same purpose.
Abandonment windows still exist elsewhere, but the US is the only nation to legislate comprehensively for abandoned babies
Safe harbor laws were introduced in the US to stop infanticide; first appeared in Texas in 1999 and then in all other states
The risk of infanticide is greatest on the day of birth. A recent report from the US Centers for Disease Control found that the number of babies killed on that first day dropped by nearly 67% after the introduction of safe harbor laws between 2008 and 2017.
But proving a causal link is difficult: affordable childcare, better parenting skills and an understanding of maternal depression could also explain it.
It was the death of a newborn child that propelled Heather Burner to become a passionate advocate for safe harbors. More than a decade ago, I was on duty in a Phoenix hospital emergency room, where I worked as a pediatric nurse.
“A 15-year-old girl checked in complaining of abdominal pain. After checking her vital signs, she went to the bathroom. She delivered her baby alone and look wateroh in a boat garbage. About 20 minutes later a cleaning lady found it. We tried to save his life, but we were unsuccessful.”
Despite the evidence, the teenager denied that the baby was hers. It is suspected that he was the victim of sexual abuse by a family member.
“It was very traumatic,” says Heather. Now director of the Arizona Safe Havens Program and executive director of the National Safe Havens Alliance (NSHA), she estimates that 4.687 babies they have been “delivered” nationwide since 1999.
NSHA has a help line and receives between 60 y100 calls per month. In June, while the Supreme Court on Roe v. Wade, there was a 300% increase in calls. Anti-abortion groups have long argued that safe harbor laws eliminate the need for an abortion, a view echoed during the hearings.
For NSHA callers, the advice to leave a baby in a safe place is a last resort.
“We ask them, what is stopping you from raising this child?” said Heather. “Most of the time the baby is not the crisis, it is his situation. Are they homeless? Do you need help with childcare? I literally paid an electric bill once and it made the woman feel like she could handle the next one.”
Some women callers keep the baby. Others opt for a regular adoption and will choose – and perhaps meet – the family that will care for their child. But some will “deliver” their babies to a safe place.
West of Phoenix, Porter Olson lives with his foster family and his beloved dog. Porter is an energetic 11-year-old boy who loves camping, gardening and cooking.
In 2011, the Olsons were contacted by the adoption agency they had joined. “I got the call and they said we’re having a baby,” Michael Olson recalled. He sent his wife Nicole a text with just these words: “The best day of my life”.
Nicole was in a class teaching. “I called my director and said, ‘I need to find out about maternity leave.’ And she said, ‘Why? Are you pregnant?’ And I said, ‘No, but I’m having a baby today!'”
Porter’s biological mother left him in a baby box at a hospital. In Arizona, usually an adoptive family is found on the same day. And, like the Olsons, they may know absolutely nothing about their new baby.
“I never really cared about it, I just thought we’d grow together and figure that part out,” says Nicole. Still, the couple felt it might be helpful for Porter himself to have more information.
“So one day my mom is going to give me a DNA test. Whatever it was, I’m going to celebrate,” Porter says, continuing the story. “And we got tested, and the doctor said, ‘Congratulations! You can celebrate everything!’ I am European, American Indian, Sub-Saharan African and East Asian.”
There is no mechanism for Porter to find out more about his birth parents.. That’s why some adoptive-adult activists have decried safe harbor laws. Feminist scholars have also criticized them for failing to address the socioeconomic injustices that may force dropouts in the first place.
And what happens if a woman later has doubts about giving up her baby forever?
“Some states have a period within which the mother can try to get the child back”said Kate Loudenslagel, Maricopa County Assistant District Attorney.
“But here in Arizona, we don’t have an option for mothers who change their mind. Abandoning the child itself is considered a relinquishment. If a father believes he has paternity for a child, he has 30 days to the Register of Alleged Parents.” Parents to Claim Paternity”.
What happened to Michelle?
“I couldn’t get her face out of my head.”she says now of the baby she delivered to the nurses that winter night.
Three days after the birth, Michelle called NSHA. Heather Burner began advocating for this troubled young woman.
“He was very happy with the adoptive family,” says the NSHA’s executive director. Thirty-three days after he gave up his daughter, Michelle got it back.
Seeing Heather again was the best feeling in the world, says Michelle. The couple caring for the baby agreed to return her. If they refused, Michelle would have to fight the case in court.
Michelle agreed to speak to the BBC, perhaps because everything was going well. But, what about the thousands of women who gave delivered their newborns and never see them again?
Maybe it was the best, or only, option for them. We don’t know because almost no one has shared their story publicly.
*The name of Michelle it has been changed to protect your identity.
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