Abandoned Baby Legislation Controversy Continues

by Barbara Free, MA, LPCC

     The controversy over “abandoned baby” legislation continues in several states. A bill is going to be introduced in New Mexico, sponsored by Pauline Gubbels, similar to laws proposed or passed in several other states. The bill, if it becomes law, would provide a “dumping place” (their words, not ours), where a woman who has given birth to a baby could leave the baby anonymously, no questions asked, no prosecution possible. This bill comes at the same time a young woman is being sentenced for her baby’s death, a girl who had apparently steadfastly denied the reality of her pregnancy.
     These bills are well-meant, with the hopes of saving babies’ lives, and even with some compassion for the women (really, most of them are young girls), but they miss several points. The first, of course, is that these babies will grow up to be young people who will figure out the circumstances of their birth, with the label “dumped babies,” which has frequently been used. How’s that for a person’s self-esteem? In this day and age, when many adoptions are open, how would it feel to be that “mystery person” with no knowledge of one’s own background? What will they be told by adoptive parents? How will adoptive parents feel about a child about whom they have no knowledge and no medical history? How will the be treated by other adoptive parents, in fact, who have much more information about their children, who have the privilege of meeting and knowing the birth parents?
     These young women, almost without exception, have been in denial of their pregnancies, sometimes even to themselves, and have received no prenatal care. They have given birth totally alone. Think back to the ’40s, ’50s, and even ’60s, when women, including married women, gave birth without their husbands present for support and celebration. At least there were usually nurses and doctors present, and the knowledge that the husband was somewhere nearby, only being barred from the birth by doctors and hospital policies. As a person who gave birth to a child I relinquished, and knowing the fear and sorrow of that, I can only imagine the terror of being 15 years old, absolutely alone in my room or a bathroom, knowing nothing of what was happening to me. Some ask, “Why didn’t they tell someone, or get prenatal care?” The reality is, we live in a society of denial about many things, especially anything related to sex. Girls are urged to dress in provocative ways, to display themselves as sexual objects; yet society tells them they should not engage in sexual activity until after marriage, which is presumably after graduate school at age 27. Is it realistic to tell them their sexual peak is at age 19 but they should wait until 27?
     The denial goes deeper than that. We still talk about menstruation in euphemisms, “period” or “time of the month,” and, although there are numerous ads on television for tampons (even at dinnertime), those ads are full of denial, too. The reality is that young girls still deny even having periods, hoping it was a one-time fluke and only after several months accepting that it’s going to happen every month. In fact, many teenage girls have quite irregular cycles, which is one reason they don’t think they’re pregnant until they’re several months along. Girls, and boys, too, want the closeness of physical intimacy, although not always the overwhelming emotional and physical loss of boundaries that is sexual intercourse. They are too embarrassed to talk about that, and they frequently tell themselves “it won’t happen again,” so they do not obtain contraception, or they only use it sporadically. “We won’t do that tonight,” they think, and the next morning “We couldn’t help it.” That is how people get pregnant! Many young people also have almost no knowledge of how their bodies really work, and still believe such myths as, “You can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.” I can’t count the number of women I know who did get pregnant the very first time they had sex.
     If there is this much denial about even having sex, of course there is reluctance to go to a doctor and get prenatal care. Fifteen-year-olds are not known for their mature judgment nor their ability to plan ahead. It has even been suggested that bringing back the shame and social ostracization of getting pregnant outside of marriage would lower the number of births, and, presumably, the rate of teenage sexual activity. Aside from the unrealistic mind-set of such statements, it is cruel. All of us who were birth mothers in the days of such secrecy and shame know the horror of that. It would not decrease the rates of “out-of-wedlock” births, but it might lead to more abandoned babies.
     Nothing is mentioned in these proposed laws about counseling for the young women, or for their partners, nor even of providing medical care for them. They are presumed to be able to just go on as if nothing had happened. The truth is, they will have unspeakable guilt, sorrow, and shame, unless they are able to speak about it. Nothing is mentioned of young people needing to have adults to talk to on an ongoing basis that might prevent their giving birth alone and scared. It might even prevent some of the pregnancies.
     The answer would seem to be solutions that our society does not really want—to accept the reality that teenagers are frequently confused about their own feelings and their own bodies, that they are vulnerable, often have poor personal boundaries, and that some of them will have sexual intercourse, and some of them will get pregnant, and that that does not make them criminals. Parents may have to face the fact that their children are physically capable of having sex. They may have to be honest about their own previous sexual activity. They may need to talk openly about sex and pregnancy, even when their children act like they don’t want to hear it. They may need to give up their own fantasies about the importance of virginity and will power. Instead of extracting promises of abstinence, frank conversation about sex and emotions and responsibility might be more nurturing in the long run. This is not to say that abstinence isn’t best, but it is to say that hoping one doesn’t have a fire shouldn’t prevent one from keeping a fire extinguisher around, and from making sure one can escape if there is a fire.
     There probably needs to be a provision for a woman to relinquish a baby when that is best, without legal penalty or social shaming, but with help for herself and the opportunity to pass on medical history at the minimum. It is important to note that in the states which have already passed abandoned baby laws, these “drop-off” places are not being utilized. Young women and their partners are still too scared to think clearly. If they could plan ahead to “I will give birth and leave my baby at the ’safe haven’ place,” then they might have already sought prenatal care and adoption placement.
     The controversy over this type of legislation is being discussed in many adoption support groups and newsletters across the country, with the general consensus that instead of jumping into laws formulated by emotions and outrage, we need to look at the larger picture of helping everyone involved, and thinking about the long-term consequences of any such laws. We would urge readers to think carefully about this issue and then contact their state legislators, who will be considering such legislation in the upcoming session.

Excerpted from the January 2001 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2001 Operation Identity