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October-26-00

The Baby Abandonment Myth - Part II

Regardless of who is supporting these bills, one important question remains unanswered: is there a need for this legislation at all? Or is this just another case of politicians scoring easy "we-care-about-children" points? No one is really certain that baby abandonment is a statistically significant problem. No agency officially tracks how many babies are abandoned each year, though Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Tex.) has proposed a bill to do just that. The numbers that are available, however, suggest that this issue is drawing a disproportionate amount of legislative fervor. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 105 babies were abandoned nationwide in 1998. Looking at the statistics for her own county in New York State, social worker Julie Cooper Altman says she was shocked that legislators would take on this problem above all others. "In Suffolk County, eleven teenagers died of suicide or homicide in 1995. That's ten more bodies we should be concerned about than the one baby that's abandoned here every eighteen months. It's easier, I guess, to love a baby than a teenager."

Indeed, some of the founding fathers and mothers of baby abandonment legislation come from the same groups that support abstinence education, parental consent, and other campaigns to limit reproductive health services. Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), says that it's hardly a coincidence that anti-choice advocates are involved in both issues. "They've created a climate of shame around sexuality," she says, "and I can only hypothesize, but perhaps there's some guilt involved. After all, it's the teachings of anti-choice thinkers that have driven young people into a corner where they might feel compelled to keep their parents, or neighbors, or minister from finding out about a pregnancy. These are the women who will wait past the time that an abortion is safe and who are at risk of trying to hide the birth of their baby."

Which leads to the next big question: if a woman is feeling that scared and panicked, how likely is it that she would even take advantage of this option and drive to a drop-off site where she would have to come face-to-face with an authority figure of one kind or another? Not very, says Debbe Magnusen, founder and director of Project Cuddle, a crisis line for pregnant women. "These women are frightened, they're fearful of the system," says Magnusen. "So they're not going to want to go somewhere where they'll have to involve the system in their lives." As of May 2000, no one had left a baby at a designated site in any of the three states that had legalized it by that time. But since Mobile, Alabama, instituted its local safe surrender program, four babies have been left at designated drop-off points, according to Jodi Brooks. And, she claims, not a single infant has been abandoned outside of the designated sites since her program launched in November 1998. She says, "the secret is to advertise everywhere—on television, on buses. You've got to let your community know about it."

Cooper Altman suggests that this same strategy should be employed to alert teenagers to the existence of other options. "Why not fund campaigns to inform confused pregnant women about family planning agencies?" she suggests. In fact, the laws neglect women's needs almost entirely. For one thing, while they are ostensibly designed to protect women from punishment, most of the new laws simply state that birth mothers have an "affirmative defense" if they leave a baby at a designated site—meaning they can still be prosecuted if the district attorney determines they did not follow the abandonment guidelines to the letter. Furthermore, counseling for the mother seems not to have been considered at all. That worries former Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Adrienne Verrilli. "It's not enough for a woman to drop off her baby with a firefighter," she says. "There's

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