Opinion: $20,000 ‘baby boxes’ aren’t a solution to Roe’s repeal

There was a time when U.S. parents who abandoned their children were a rarity and fit a narrow profile. Due to overwhelming cultural or social pressures, their unplanned pregnancy put them at significant risk, so they felt they had no choice but to hide the pregnancy, give birth alone and abandon the infant.

Now, due to the rollback of Roe v. Wade amid limited access to contraception, the profile of at-risk parents is much broader. People facing these circumstances are no longer extreme outliers but are more likely to fit the profile of an average person of reproductive age from any state where abortion is now illegal or highly restricted.

The legal landscape is shifting in alarming ways — which traumatizes birth parents and children alike through unwanted births, while feeding a profitable adoption system.

Privately funded “baby boxes” — modern versions of medieval abandonment wheels — are being installed in so many locations that they are quietly shaping a national infrastructure. In turn, nine states have updated their safe haven laws to permit parents to use them, and an additional nine states are proposing similar changes this legislative season.

What’s wrong with baby boxes? First, their scaled-up use is a sign that people are increasingly forced into pregnancy and childbirth. Second, they’re an indicator of mistrust between communities and state-sponsored services. Due to bias and social stigma, many people don’t feel safe going to alternative surrender sites like hospitals, fire stations, paramedics or child services. Third, many parents are forced to abandon due to economic constraints — the current “baby box” system fast-tracks their children to pre-approved economically secure families while the birth parent’s rights are rapidly terminated. Fourth, baby boxes show that while we care about the babies, we don’t extend care to birth parents or struggling families.

At $20,000 each, the 138 boxes across the United States have cost $2.76 million. Indiana alone has 92 boxes and they plan to install even more, having recently approved an additional $1 million in baby box funds. Nineteen percent of single mothers in Indiana live in poverty; many don’t have access to birth control or abortion; half of the pregnancies in the state are unwanted or unplanned; and there’s no access to anonymous birth.

These circumstances are not accidental but are the result of intentional laws and policies — and are reflective of parents’ circumstances across the country. Baby box funds could have financed accessible birth control or childcare so the parents could keep their babies, find employment and become self-sufficient.

The media is full of stories that celebrate parents who surrender children as being “heroic” and “selfless,” but none of the articles mention how horrific it is that the birth parent may be hemorrhaging or suffering from a massive infection from having birthed alone, without access to medical care or trauma counseling. These women are not just incubators to complete other people’s families. And yet, because of the rollback of Roe, economists anticipate 50,000 additional unplanned or unwanted births annually. This means current U.S. laws are contributing to tens of thousands of traumatized families.

We must find ways to increase reproductive freedom, including fair access to contraception and abortion. We should also offer anonymous birth so at-risk birth parents aren’t forced to place themselves and their infants in danger during delivery. Safe haven laws should be revamped to remove “gotcha” clauses that prosecute parents despite their untenable circumstances.

Legislators must partner with local communities to determine where parents feel safest if they had to abandon their child, then update the laws accordingly. This broken, judgmental system must be amended.

Lori Bruce is a bioethicist at Yale University. Views expressed are her own. She wrote this for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine. ©2023 Tribune Content Agency.

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