Massachusetts Safe Haven Law Offers Protection For Newborn Children, Alternative To Abortion

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Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, there has been a steep drop-off in the number of children put up for adoption.

The number of babies born and put up for adoption in the United States dropped from 9 percent in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court implemented some of the world’s least restrictive abortion laws, to just 1 percent between 1996 and 2002, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That 1973 number included 20 percent of babies born to unwed white women.

Over the past couple of decades, however, there has been another way for women to safely surrender their newborn babies that both pro-life and pro-abortion organizations support:  Safe Haven laws. Each of the 50 states has one.

Massachusetts’s Safe Haven law was enacted in 2004, when Mitt Romney was governor. It allows a mother to drop off her unharmed newborn at a hospital, police station, or fire station within seven days of birth without repercussions and without providing any personal information. The purpose of the law, its advocates say, is to prevent infanticide. From 2000 to 2004, before the law went into effect, there were 13 baby abandonments in Massachusetts alone, including six deaths. That included one on UMass Amherst’s campus in 2002 where a student reportedly gave birth in a shower stall and then put her baby in the trash, as the Massachusetts Daily Collegian reported in 2004.

The Safe Haven law allows children to become wards of the state and put up for adoption so they can grow up in a family.

And while its advocates say that it’s not a pro-life or pro-abortion issue, Heather Burner, the executive director of the National Safe Haven Alliance, says that in all likelihood, these laws do reduce the number of abortions in the country.

“I’ve spoken on both sides:  at pro-life conferences and with pro-choicers,” Burner said in a telephone interview. “From experience, I can tell you that our crisis line and call centers have received calls from women who were scheduled for an abortion and chose to do safe haven instead. I can tell you that it’s a safe alternative and we just hope that we’re supporting women. We don’t want them to have any more pain or hurt in their lives.”

Burner was referring to her organization’s 24/7 crisis hotline, which allows callers to get information by telephone or text message about the law and where they can get help.

“With our communication model, when we get these calls, women and parents are really looking for support and safe options,” Burner said. “They love their baby, they’re just in a tough situation where they can’t parent, but there are times where they can parent when we get them corrected with the right resources to help them parent their child. It’s an honor to be able to work with people across the country to help parents out like that.”

Mike Morrissey, the founder of Baby Safe Haven New England, who helped get the Massachusetts law passed, noted that it’s a strange topic where the two sides of the abortion debate actually agree on something.

“It has nothing to do with pro-life or pro-choice,” Morrissey said. “In New Hampshire when we were getting the law done there, New Hampshire Right to Life came up to testify and Planned Parenthood of New Hampshire came up after and said almost the exact same thing. People’s eyes were popping out of their heads. They both promote it.”

New Hampshire Right to Life and Planned Parenthood of New Hampshire could not be reached for comment earlier this week.

Morrissey said he doesn’t like to see safe haven statutes polarized because they’re not about abortion law, and supporters want to promote the law to people on both sides of the abortion debate.

Massachusetts does not release figures on how many women use the Safe Haven law. Morrissey said women use use safe havens don’t want attention even as a statistic. However, in a December 2020 press release, his organization noted that there had been only one reported baby abandonment in Massachusetts during the past eight years — which he said is evidence that the law is working.

Yet the existence of the Safe Haven law isn’t enough, he said. It’s also important, he said, for people to hear about the laws — which is why his organization has a myriad of young people who do radio appearances to discuss the law.

“Promotion is everything when it comes to Safe Haven laws,” Morrissey said. “If no young person hears about it, do you actually have one?”

“Never use to promote safe haven laws old faces, old voices, suits, and podiums,” he added. “When you see the governor in his press conferences, what does he have? All of those. Gen Z won’t listen to someone like that. They have a distrust of older generations, especially baby boomers, so why use them to market to them? We’re doing what the Baby Safe Haven Group started in 2004:  use the standard demographic marketing.”

Both Burner and Morrissey said that Massachusetts could strengthen its safe haven law to improve it, and Massachusetts Citizens for Life and Democrats for Life of America agreed as well.

Burner, for example, said that Massachusetts should expand the timeframe where a mother can drop off a child at a safe haven location from seven days after birth to 30 days.

“We’ve found that it encapsulates the acute crisis situation and if a parent goes home and sees they can’t do this, it gives them an option,” Burner said. “The providers I think are great. Some states do that a little differently, but the more locations the better.”

She also said that clearly visible signs promoting the laws at safe drop-off locations are key.

“I think if you put yourself in the position of a parent looking for a safe place, they’re probably going to be looking for a sign that says they can do that, so we do promote signs, decals, anything we can to raise public awareness of it.”

One day in mid-April, a NewBostonPost reporter drove by the Marshfield Police Station, the Norwell Fire Department on Route 53, the Pembroke Police Station, and the Norwell State Police barracks and saw no safe haven signs on any of the buildings. However, the reporter saw the sign on the Marshfield Fire Station on South River Street near the Marshfield fairgrounds. That’s because Morrissey offered the Marshfield Fire Department three safe haven signs in 2017 for each station in town, which the fire department accepted, as The Patriot Ledger reported at the time.

Morrissey also said the improvement he would like to see made to Massachusetts’s Safe Haven law is to allow mothers to call 911 to surrender their baby, in addition to the drop-off locations. In May 2016, the Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill proposed by then-state representative Keiko Orrall (R-Lakeville) to do provide that option, but it never came up for a vote in the Massachusetts Senate.

The neighboring state of Vermont allows people to use 911 calls to have an emergency responder to pick up the baby under the state’s safe haven law; it also gives the mother 30 days to use the law rather than seven.

Patricia Stewart, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said the Massachusetts safe haven law is a good thing that could be improved.

“Massachusetts Citizens for Life wholeheartedly supports the concept of Save Haven Laws as a means of reducing infanticide and offering desperate parents a humane option by which to relinquish their newborn without legal jeopardy,” Stewart said in an email message.

“Massachusetts’ current Safe Haven Law could be strengthened by: (1) increasing the statutory age at which an infant is eligible for Safe Haven protection from the current limit of ‘7 days of age or less’ to one-year-old. This would address the distressing CDC statistic that ‘[m]ost (92.4%) of homicides occurred among infants who were too old for Safe Haven relinquishment at the time of their death’; and (2) expanding the current designated locations at which parents can voluntarily place a newborn beyond a ‘hospital, police department, and manned fire station,’ to include an emergency responder at a place where the parties to a 911 call had agreed to meet following the call.”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, said safe haven laws offer women and girls with problem pregnancies another option instead of abortion.

“Democrats for Life of America fully supports life-saving measures like Safe Haven laws. We commend the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for recognizing the difficult challenges faced by pregnant women by offering a compassionate solution that protects babies and a mother’s privacy,” Day said by email. “According to statistics from Baby Safe Haven New England, twenty-five babies have been surrendered under the Safe Haven law, and no babies have been abandoned since the law was put into place.”

Day noted that Massachusetts state legislators overwhelmingly support legal abortion, as shown by the abortion expansion bill the House and Senate enacted December 29 over the governor’s veto, but “there is no equal effort to provide similar access to alternatives to abortion.”

The result?

“They have a high abortion rate, being in the top 16 worst states, which disproportionately falls on low-income and minority communities,” Day said. “The Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLE) estimates that the black abortion rate was 24.4 per 1,000 women compared to the white abortion rate of 7.9 per 1,000 women.”

Day said state officials should look at ways state government can make choosing to give birth easier for those in a tough situation.

“We recommend a study to determine why women choose abortion and what measures would be necessary to provide equal opportunity for alternatives such as paid maternity leave (especially for hourly workers), adequate accommodations in the workforce, access to prenatal and post-natal care, access to a support structure either through faith-based or secular non-profit groups and other measures as determined by the study,” Day said.

Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts could not be reached for comment on Sunday or Monday this week.

More information on the National Safe Haven Alliance is available at Morrissey’s organization has a Facebook page called Baby Safe Haven New England.


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