It's hard to argue against establishing safe havens for infants born to mothers who would otherwise abandon them. If even one overwhelmed and desperate mother leaves a child in safe hands instead of leaving it to die, there is merit to the laws passed in several states that enable mothers who elect to leave their newborns at fire houses or health care facilities.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, is proposing similar legislation for Utah — an attempt to address the tragic cases of abandonment that have occurred in Utah over the past two years. Make no mistake, Utahns want to save these babies. But there must also be extraordinary efforts made to help the deeply troubled mothers who perceived they had no other option but to abandon their offspring in the first place.
Utah lawmakers need to tread carefully as they delve into this national debate. Criminal immunity for those who abandon newborns, as provided in some state statutes, might persuade some desperate mothers to leave their babies at safe havens. But lawmakers must understand that this proposal addresses only one piece of a very complex issue, and it poses some difficult moral questions.
Very surely, mothers who abandon their offspring are deeply troubled. It is in their best interest and the interest of any future offspring they might produce, to receive help.
Under Arent's proposal, women could anonymously surrender their newborns within three days of birth at a hospital or at fire stations without fear of criminal prosecution. To some degree, it poses an ethical dilemma for hospital and fire personnel who may encounter teenage mothers who would arguably benefit from professional medical and mental health care. If they don't ask for help, do these professionals simply turn them away? Should there be no attempt to contact their parents, who could ensure their daughter receives treatment or who may have other desires for the infant?
While some people may resort to dumping their babies because of the fear of prosecution, the criminal justice system may be the very vehicle that connects them with the resources where they can begin to resolve the issues that resulted in the pregnancy and subsequent abandonment. Perhaps Utah could handle this population as it does drug offenders: require them to seek treatment in exchange for reducing or dismissing their criminal charges.
Beyond that, where has it been demonstrated that fear of criminal prosecution is what drives mothers to abandon their babies? Also, is it an appropriate legal distinction to grant protection to mothers who abandon newborn babies but to file charges against a troubled mother who abandons her older children?
Some women who abandon their babies are driven by the fear of others finding out they have been promiscuous. Others are gravely mentally ill or addicted to drugs. In those circumstances, it is difficult to fathom that a legal mechanism would change their behavior.
That said, the state's overriding interest here must be for the safety and protection of the child. People who conceal pregnancies and see no alternative but to abandon their child need more appropriate options.