My last post was about some new law enacted in Utah. I won’t try to summarize it since you can just go read it. I’ve been thinking about the law over the weekend (and I’ve looked at the comments made) and I wanted to look a bit more carefully at what it does and what (if anything) is wrong with it. The key here for me is that, as always, it’s important to think carefully and precisely about how law works and to be as specific as possible about what is wrong.
One general idea embodied in the law is if a man who is genetically related to a child abandons the child then he cannot object to the child’s adoption. (This is, I think, a fair summary of how the provisions of the law operate–really what happens is his consent is implied from his abandonment. Thus, he irrevocably consents when he abandons the child.) This does not seem like an unreasonable idea, at least to me. Continue reading
My last post was about a controversial European practice–the establishment of baby boxes. There’s a lot of discussion there–I might not have picked up on all the comments–but I wanted to reframe the discussion here. There are many different perspectives and many valid points to be made. It’s not so much that I think we all need to agree in the end as that I think we should understand where we disagree.
One way to start is by observing that the three things listed above (baby boxes, safe haven laws and adoption) are all potential solutions to a single problem: unwanted children.
They may not technically be exclusive solutions–by which I mean that you could have baby boxes or safe havens and then place those babies for adoption. In fact, I think this is what is commonly done. But one point that has been made forcefully in the discussions on the earlier post is that to the extent adoption is premised on various procedures that protect rights of all those involved, both baby boxes and safe havens short circuit those procedures. Continue reading
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? Continue reading
On one level I cannot believe that I am going to start yet again with something about Nebraska. But this is to raise a much broader point.
There’s been a bit of coverage of the hearings to change Nebraska’s safe haven law. What struck me about the story I linked to is the discussion of the harm done to children who are abandoned by their parents. It seems to me there are two parts to this harm. One is the knowledge that the parent has abandoned the child–has chosen to separate from the child. The other is the actual disruption of the parent/child relationship. As the article notes, many of the parents are not acting lightly. They are not acting because they do not love their children. To the contrary, they are leaving the children because they do love them and cannot think what else to do.
It’s not hard for me to see that the disruption/destruction of the parent/child relationship is a terrible thing for the child (and the parent, but let’s focus here on the child.) Sometimes–as when a parent dies–it is simply unpreventable. Though even then there can be a sense of abandonment. But it seems especially tragic (and perhaps especially consequential) when it doesn’t have to be that way.
Now I think the harm occurs because of the nature and depth of the relationship disrupted. That’s why it is different to abandon a 30-day-old and a ten-year old. If we were to discover that one of the parents in the article wasn’t actually genetically related to the child in question, I don’t think we’d therefore say that there really wasn’t any harm done. Indeed, I don’t think we know anything at all about the genetic relationship between the parents who testified in Nebraska and the children they left. We know their social relationships. In their eyes and in the eyes of the children, these people were parents. And therein lies the pain and the tragedy. Continue reading
One last follow-up on the Nebraska safe-haven law. The legislature there is in special session now. They are trying to figure out the right age limit–since clearly 18 years is not it. I think they’ve settled for the moment on 30 days as opposed to three days. I thought this story was worth a look. The rationale for 30 rather than 3 days is that at three days you really don’t know how hard it is going to be.
That’s true, of course. The reality of caring for an infant does take a while to set in. But it strikes me that the passage of time really cuts in two opposite ways here. The longer you serve as a parent, the more problematic abandoning the child seems. It’s easier to contemplate at 3 days because there’s so much less time for the person to have been/become/be a parent. The problem with dropping off a much older child is that the person really has been a parent and so there’s a different consequence to abandonment.
I’m not saying that the thirty day rule is wrong. Perhaps it is the right balance. It’s just interesting to note that you are balancing here, between compassion for the child and understanding for the parent.
One last time (I think) the Nebraska story–perhaps now a saga–is in the news. When I last commented on this, Nebraska was pretty clearly going to change the law allowing parents to drop off children of any age at a hospital emergency room. Now it appears that this change will be made in a special session of the legislature, at a cost of $80,000. It’s urgent because people really are travelling from out of state to drop off kids in Nebraska. Or maybe just because too many people are using the law’s provisions.
I continue to ponder why it is okay to drop off a newborn but not okay to drop off a teenager. In both cases, parenting can be challenging. My latest thought is that the differential treatment reflects a sort of cost/benefit analysis. In any of these cases, one of the things you have to weigh is the relative harm to the child or children involved. There’s probably some harm on both sides in these cases–harm to the child in staying in a home where the parents feel so thoroughly overwhelmed vs. harm to the child from being abandoned. With a newborn, the risk of harm in staying in the home with the overwhelmed parent may be greater–newborns are helpless and fragile and could easily be endangered in this setting.
At the same time, I’d venture to say that the harm from abandonment is less for a newborn. I do not mean to deny that there is harm here (and I am quick to say this lest I be taken as too cavalier). But being rejected/abandoned by a person who has been your parent for ten/twelve/fourteen years seems to me to have a qualitatively different impact from being rejected/abandoned by a person who has spent a good deal less time with you.
Perhaps it is this calculus that lies behind the greater willingness to tolerate abandonment of newborns than teenagers.
I’ve written several times about recent developments in Nebraska. Some time over the summer, Nebraska enacted a law that allowed parents to drop their children off at certain designated locations (hospital emergency rooms, fire stations, that sort of thing) without facing charges of abandonment or neglect. A number of states have similar laws (I discuss this in more detail here). They are usually designed to ensure that newborns are not left on doorsteps or in dumpsters.
The thing that distinguished Nebraska law was that it didn’t seem to have an age limit. Suddenly parents were dropping off teenagers. Indeed, people were travelling to Nebraska from out-of-state to leave their unruly 14-year-olds in emergency rooms. This got quite a bit of attention and caused general consternation.
Well now, not surprisingly, it appears that Nebraska will be changing that law. The new law will cap the age of children who can be left with impunity at three days. This obviously restores it to its more usual purpose–to protect newborns.
All well and good and really not surprising. It does take me back to the original question I wrote about. Why is it okay to leave a three-day-old but not a thirteen-year-old? The most obvious reasons would seem to be that the newborn really cannot in any way protect himself/herself and that at the same time we can anticipate that the mother of the newborn (and I mean mother, not parent, see the earlier posts) may be really overwhelmed. There is something that is at once understandable and unsatisfying about this explanation, though.
I’m still thinking about the issues raised by the recent spate of publicity generated by that Nebraska statute. (I’ve written a bit about this before here and here so you can see what I’m talking about.) There’s a similar story that’s been in the news around Seattle recently.
This is the flip side of the Nebraska story really–a young woman being prosecuted for having abandoned her baby at the wrong sort of place. (She left it at a church rather than a fire station or hospital. Some hours passed before the baby was discovered.) The mother (who is 22) had given birth alone outside of her apartment complex. The child is now living with the mother of the 24-year-old Iraq-bound soldier who is identified as the father.
It’s impossible for me to proceed here without commenting on the situation this young woman was in. Giving birth alone, outside, in the dark is simply unimaginable. I understand why we make it criminal to abandon a newborn child, but I also shudder at the circumstances that lead this young woman (any women) to leave a child like this. It can only be the result of a failure of community and perhaps society and punishing a single individual seems almost to obscure that point. (I will observe that the local prosecutor has stated he would not seek jail time, which is at least some sort of reassurance.) Continue reading