Saving Babies

by by David Adler

illustration by by Lizzie Davis

In the year 1198, there were a lot of babies in the River Tiber. Unmarried mothers had few choices beyond depositing their unwanted infants along the Roman waters. The Tiber became a veritable Styx, newborns floating toward the underworld.

The ruota dei trovatelli was Pope Innocent III’s solution, a revolving door on the Santo Spirito Hospital in the Vatican into which mothers could deposit their babies, slide the wheel to the other side, and walk away anonymously. The babies entered the care of the church, assigned names like Proietti (“to throw away) or Esposito (“exposed”). All throughout Europe, merchants and missionaries installed these foundling wheels on the sides of orphanages and convents alike.

The problem of infanticide never fully faded, though, and problems arose on the other side of the wheel. In the mid-19th century, amidst a French recession, the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés (Hospital for Foundling Children) in Paris faced an influx of tens of thousands of newborn babies per year. Economic hardship means more unwanted babies—in Europe today, where children occupy 20 to 30 percent of average household income, the pattern is repeating. One thousand two hundred abandoned infants in Greece and 750 in Italy in 2012 alone, a 20 percent increase from years past.

Where medieval mothers feared social stigma, many of these mothers simply lack the means to care for their children. And in order to meet a modern need, a modern technology has emerged in the “Baby Hatch.” On the outside of many European hospitals is a small incubator into which mothers can drop off their babies, signaling an alarm inside of the hospital to retrieve the newborn. One hundred in Germany, 40 in Poland and Czech Republic, 10 in Italy. Of course, the River Tiber is still not totally baby free—in February of last year, after fighting with his wife, a man grabbed their baby and tossed him into the water—but the baby hatch hopes to solve the abandonment problem altogether.

Global Babies
Infanticide is a global problem. In China, where a one-child policy has been in place since 1979, close to a million orphans are abandoned each year. In India, a similar number of babies are “missing.” Medical statistics are hard to come by, but headlines each day in the newspaper speak to the frequency. January 20: “New-born Baby Girl Found Abandoned.” January 21: “Abandoned Baby Found at St. Cruz.” January 25: “Abandoned Newborn Girl Dies in Gurgaon.”

The gender imbalance in the infanticide problem is evident. UNICEF reports provide unnerving statistics on Chinese infanticide:
(i) Chinese girls are twice as likely to die within the first year as Chinese boys.
(ii) Risk of death for the second girl is three times higher than that of the first one.
Meanwhile, the frequency of Indian female infanticide poses a significant demographic challenge. In 2011, there were only 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, a ratio that has been on the decline for the past ten years and counting. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of patriarchy, as the beloved son becomes the breadwinning father while the daughter assumes her domestic role from childhood through wifehood. If they are not abandoned at birth, these daughters are often poisoned or neglected; if not actively harmed, daughters are underfed, under-educated, and banished to the periphery of the family unit. As a result, prenatal sex determination has been outlawed since 1994 in the hopes of preventing gender-specific abortions.

India has had its own experiments with the baby hatch. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a Cradle Baby Scheme (CBS) has been in operation for over 20 years. New mothers can place their female babies “anonymously in cradles located in noon meal centres, PHCs [Primary Health Centers], selected orphanages and NGOs,” according to the United Nations Population Fund. CBS collected 2,410 baby girls between 2001 and 2007.

As it had for the Parisian hospital in the 1860s, the CBS scheme in Tamil Nadu puts major stress on the state to account for the babies it collects. It’s the classic dilemma of the Indian state—big problems and little money to solve them. And adding to the issue of childcare infrastructure is the lurking presence of baby trafficking networks. In 2001, a scandal erupted in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh when several adoption agencies were charged with running a baby racket, selling female newborns for $15,000-$50,000 to parents abroad. The agencies acquired their babies for a few hundred rupees from mothers looking to relinquish their parental duties, according to the First Information Report (FIR) filed in Andhra Pradesh. Workers forged documents, signatures, and even invented villages; there were occasions when a dead baby was still listed as alive so that when they found another close in age, there was no extra paperwork required.

Ten Pound Controversy
The harrowing tale of baby trafficking and its tangential relationship to the CBS scheme is one of the many controversial aspects of the baby hatch method. The CBS scheme, one argument goes, merely encourages the son preference, offering an easier, legal avenue for the disavowal of female children, creating a new underclass of female orphans. The state has a responsibility to encourage responsible, gender-neutral child rearing.

Other criticism centers on the rights of mother and child. On the former, many argue that the baby hatch encourages unsafe births, protecting the baby at the cost of the mother’s health, for whom no assistance is provided. Baby abandonment is the effect, not the cause; the baby hatch is a misguided substitute for state assistance to struggling mothers, who should be encouraged to raise their own children. Moreover, while the anonymity of the baby hatch may curb abandonment, it also opens the door to the non-consensual disposal of the baby by the father or other relatives.

At the same time, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child openly advocated a full-scale ban on the baby hatch. While the practice is still outlawed in Britain, 11 of the European Union’s 27 countries support the baby hatch, which the U.N. claims to come in conflict with Articles 7 (“right to know and be cared for by his parents”), 8 (“right of the child to preserve his or her identity”), and even Article 6 (“every child has an inherent right to life”) of the charter, as the baby hatch supports unsafe birth methods. “It’s paradoxical that it’s okay for women to give up their babies by putting them in a box,” Committee member Maria Herczog told the Associated Press, “but if they were to have them in a hospital and walk away, that’s a crime.”

The Baby Haven
In July 2000, Martha Cedeno found a baby in a cardboard box in her Providence driveway. A student at the University of Rhode Island, she quickly called the police, who arrived just in time to transport the baby to the Women and Infants Hospital on Plain Street. Luckily, the infant survived.

Cedeno and the story of the seven pound, three ounce boy was one of the main instances of baby abandonment that came before Rhode Island’s 2003 adoption of the Safe Haven policy. Today in Rhode Island, a mother can anonymously leave her baby at any hospital, EMS provider, fire station, or police department within 30 days of its birth. The newborns are then taken into the custody of Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which works to find them a suitable home. This is the Ocean State’s particular brand of the Safe Haven laws—or Baby Moses laws—which offer anonymous baby drop-offs at various locations and with various durations across all 50 states.

Safe Haven seems to offer a solution to the European problem of Article 6: provide the anonymous avenue of the baby hatch with the medical care of a proper hospital. For Mike, a clinical social worker at the DCYF who asked the Independent to omit his last name, the Safe Haven policy “has certainly not encouraged baby abandonment. It has created a route for mothers who cannot take care of their kids.”

Mike thinks it’s really an issue of cost—“for society and certainly for the infant.” On the former, the Safe Haven policy allows a mother who does not feel capable of responsibly raising a child to put him or her into proper care, avoiding the psychological trauma of a childhood of neglect and, hopefully, creating a productive and healthy citizen. The reality is slightly less pretty; foster care does not always solve these problems and often exacerbates them. Yet on a very basic level, Mike believes that Safe Haven is a good alternative to “what medical treatment would cost for an infant who is left alone in a northern climate.”

Nonetheless, the Safe Haven policy is not without its own controversies. In the summer of 2008, word spread about a new Nebraska law that allowed for the disposal of any “child,” which, unspecified in the law, opened the doors to anyone under the age of 18. Disgruntled parents took advantage of the new Safe Haven policy, and by November, a total of 38 non-infant minors had been handed off to the state. “They were tired of their parenting role,” said Todd Landry from Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services. The state quickly moved to amend the law, and now has a 30-day cap like Rhode Island. Yet the Nebraska case illustrates well Safe Haven’s deficiencies. The public portrait of Nebraska’s “tired” parents reflects the state preoccupation with the baby, that sacred item in the American imaginary. When it’s the fetus at risk, Safe Haven is an ally to the conservative; once the baby is delivered—or 30 days after, Nebraska decided—it’s a liability to the taxpayer’s pocket, or worse, a threat to the sanctity of the family unit. At the hearings held at the Nebraska legislature following the revision, parent testimony pointed to the state’s failure to offer psychiatric services for struggling children and their parents as one of the main reasons so many families took advantage of the loophole in the first place.

That’s exactly why Stephanie Terry, Associate Director of Child Protective Services in Rhode Island, thinks that Safe Haven has been such a success in the Ocean State. “Since we adopted the policy, we have had two instances of true Safe Haven babies left at fire stations,” she told the Independent. “I would attribute that to the fact that we have a lot of prevention services.” According to Terry, the DCYF works hard to assist mothers of infants and non-infants alike to take care of their children and, if possible, to help them stay together. Even after the DCYF collects the babies, they “advertise for the parent just in case they change their mind.” Rhode Island’s two Safe Haven cases, Terry assured me, “were adopted, and they are happy and healthy.”

Down at the Providence police station, few policemen seemed to know about the policy at all. “Can I drop off my 45-year-old wife?” cracked a policeman behind the counter, as the station erupted with laughter and a series of high-fives. “But seriously, we would just take ‘em over to DCYF, and let them do their work.”

On a global scale, the Safe Haven policy offers a valuable case study. As a legal battle looms over the conflict between the U.N. Committee and European Union member states, Safe Haven could present a feasible compromise, a rare moment when the E.U. looks to American welfare programs for a progressive solution. “Look, nobody’s perfect,” Mike admitted over the phone. “We all just want to keep these babies safe.” In this, Safe Haven seems to have succeeded.

David Adler B’14 floats toward the underworld.