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Baby box proposal sparks controversy

15 March 2015, 19:05

Washington - It could easily be mistaken for a mailbox, except that one side of it is riddled with air holes.

It's a "baby box" - for parents who wish to anonymously give up their newborns.

About a dozen European countries, as well as China, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea already use similar systems.

Indiana could be the first US state to install them, but the plan is facing stiff opposition from those who say it could keep the mother from receiving needed medical care.

"No shame, no blame, no names," said Monica Kelsey, a firefighter and medic who heads Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

Indiana already has a Safe Haven law allowing parents to anonymously leave their children at a hospital, fire station or police station.

But state representative Casey Cox, who drafted baby box legislation that was passed by the Indiana House of Representatives and awaits a vote in the state Senate, noted that parents were sometimes "unaware" of the safe havens.

"The sheer anxiety of the face-to-face interaction required by an existing safe haven may cause some troubled parents to refuse to utilise the programme," said Cox, a Republican.

Kelsey, who worked with Cox on the bill, sees the boxes as an "extension" of the Safe Haven law. Her mother, a rape victim, abandoned her at a hospital.

The law's proponents promise that the boxes will be climate-controlled, and be equipped with an alarm system so that the abandoned baby can quickly receive care.

Cox also said that his proposed baby boxes are an "alternative to abandonment and abortion", fiercely opposed by conservatives.

But others say the legislation would create an unsettling precedent.

Reinforced 'shame'

"Baby boxes remove the chance for a mother to be offered medical care and supportive services," said Dawn Geras, the president of Save Abandoned Babies, which is based in neighbouring Illinois

"About 25% of parents who come to a safe haven, initially planning to use the Safe Haven law, when given the opportunity to talk about options, chose to either make an adoption or parenting plan."

According to Geras, "safe haven" laws passed across the country since 1999 have helped save some 2 866 babies, including 1 324 that were abandoned.

By leaving their child in a box, the parents also lack the comfort of placing the baby in someone's arms.

"Instead, the idea that what she is doing is 'bad' and something that she should feel ashamed about is reinforced," Geras added, referring to any mother who leaves her child.

Historical precedent

The practice of abandoning the youngest children was common during the Middle Ages in Europe. It largely disappeared in the 19th century, but resurfaced in Germany in 1999, after babies were found frozen to death.

In France, where abandoning children is illegal, women can give birth anonymously and surrender the baby to the state.

Laury Oaks, who chairs the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, says instead of heralding baby boxes as a solution, governments should attack the underlying problems.

"It is our political and social responsibility to reveal and eliminate the social injustices that coerce some women and girls to relinquish the right to raise their newborns or to ever have future contact with them," Oaks, author of the upcoming book "Giving Up Baby", wrote in a blog post.

Oaks said by trumpeting baby boxes as a step forward, the "underlying anti-abortion and pro-adoption views held by vocal safe haven advocates" are downplayed.

She suggested that one should "critically question the safe haven assumption that a good mother relinquishes her newborn anonymously as an act of maternal love".

The United Nations has also expressed concern over the baby box practice, and asserted a child's right to know his origins.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked Switzerland this year to "prohibit the use of baby boxes" and instead work to attack the root causes of child abandonment by bolstering family planning aid and counselling. Confidential hospital births would be a "last resort".

It made a similar recommendation to Germany last year.

Faced with the furore over the proposal, Patricia Miller, who chairs the Indiana Senate's health committee, has so far not even scheduled a hearing on the bill.


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