Thanks to Olivia’s View I was alerted to a current controversy in Europe around the use of “baby boxes.” Baby boxes allow for the safe abandonment of a newborn child. They’re akin to the Baby Moses laws I wrote about some years back.
In either case the idea is that when a woman gives birth to a child she does not wish to raise, there should be a safe (and legal) way for her to abandon that child. The impetus here is that if there is no safe and legal way for her to abandon the child, she will instead leave it in some terrible unsafe place–the woods, a dumpster, whatever. Thus, giving women in this position a safe option will ultimately save the lives of some children.
That is the theory, anyway. Is it true? I mean, does it actually save the lives of children? That matters because baby boxes or baby Moses laws also have a cost–the children abandoned in this matter may never know who their genetic parents are. Some UN officials doubt that baby boxes save any lives and therefore don’t see that they are worth the cost.
You should note here that people will differ in their assessment of both ends of the equation–whether the baby boxes save lives and what the cost is in terms of the harm wrought by the deprivation of information. It seems to me that it is very hard to make any definitive statement about either end of the equation.
On the one hand, it’s quite clear that babies are occasionally found in dumpsters or various other horrifying circumstances. Sometimes these babies die. Would they be left in a baby hatch or a haven designated by a Baby Moses law? Well, some babies are, of course. But we don’t know what would have happened to those babies had there been no safe option. Still, it seems to me you have to assume that at least some of them would have been abandoned under unsafe circumstances. I find it awfully hard to believe that a person who wasn’t planning to abandon a child is moved to do so because they can do so safely.
And on the other side of the equation, we know that some people suffer from lack of information about their genetic origins, but we also know that not all people suffer or suffer in the same degree. (This account of a man who was a foundling as in infant offers a story that is slightly different from most of the ones that I’ve read.) And we know (I think) that concealment and openness matter here, too–I mean that it is generally better for people if they know what they do not know than if they are mislead into thinking a genetic connection exists where one does not.
I’m sure it is no surprise that to me the trade-off embodied in the baby boxes is clearly worth it. I think the harms experienced by the abandoned children can be mitigated (I do not say “erased”) and the risk that they will be abandoned under unsafe conditions is real.
I appreciate the view of the UN official that better family planning services, counselling and support would be preferable. (I wonder if she would add access to abortion to this list?) Of course it would be better if there were no unwanted pregnancies, no unwanted children. But (and perhaps here I should confine my thoughts to the US) we are nowhere near this point in the US. Indeed, if anything there is less access to contraception than there was in the past. So I think we have to think about what we do until we reach that perfect place.
There are a couple of other points of interest to note. First, baby boxes aren’t a stand-alone issue. As the Guardian coverage notes,
[i]n western Europe the issue is complicated by religious practice and the law. Sari Essayah, Finnish MEP from the centre-right Christian Democrats, pointed out that in Scandinavia “two lesbians can get sperm anonymously and have children. They don’t know the name of the donor. So what about the rights of the child? The UN have got it wrong here about baby boxes.”
It seems to me you can separate the use of sperm from an unknown (and unknowable) provider and the use of baby boxes. The latter can be justifed more easily on the lesser of two evils sort of ground. But no doubt the acceptance of use of anonymous sperm providers suggests a view that the harm from not knowing genetic origins isn’t all that great. Both embody some rejection of the idea of a natural parent/child link rising from genetic connections.
Second, there’s a gender issue raised here. Who is abandoning the babies? The suggestion from anti-baby box people quoted in the Guardian is that it is male family members depriving women of wanted infants. That doesn’t seem to fit the pattern in the US–to the extent we have an idea of what it is. Here it seems to be more about women–often quite young women–left alone in their pregnancies without support of family. I wonder if there’s really a difference here or if there’s really any research to help us sort it out?