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The Baby Abandonment Myth – Part I

Decriminalizing what is commonly called “baby abandonment” has become one of the hottest legislative trends of the new millennium. After Texas passed a bill in September of 1999 stating that mothers could leave their newborns with emergency medical technicians (EMTs) without being charged with a crime, a flurry of states began proposing similar bills. At press time, 13 states had passed legislation, and bills were under consideration in 21 others. Although details vary, the gist of these laws is that a new mother can leave her infant with an EMT or at a specified site (generally a hospital or fire station), within a certain number of days after giving birth, without fear of prosecution.

The merits of this “safe surrender” legislation have been debated openly in the mainstream press, but what hasn’t been acknowledged so forthrightly are the connections to the anti-choice movement. While it’s true that safe surrender legislation has been supported by disparate forces—Democrats and Republicans, pro-choice and anti-choice crusaders—many of the people involved in the safe surrender efforts across the country are also involved in antiabortion activities.

Take Texas, for example. The legislation in that state was initiated by John Richardson, a Fort Worth pediatrician who describes himself as “pro-life…and totally apolitical.” Elaborating on his viewpoint, he says, “I’m not out picketing abortion clinics, but I’d always prefer to see a baby given up for adoption.” After reading that mothers who abandon their infants might be more inclined to leave them in safe places if they had no fear of prosecution, Richardson, who is Catholic, took the idea to Bishop Joseph Delaney in Fort Worth. The program was then presented to the legislature with the support of the staunchly anti-choice diocese. The name of the nonprofit organization that runs it: the Baby Moses Project. Geanie Morrison, the Republican representative who sponsored the bill, says that despite the biblical reference (it was chosen because, according to project officials, Moses was the first abandoned baby), it is not a religious organization. Morrison, an advocate of abstinence-only education, has also created a program in her home town of Victoria, Texas, that works with teen mothers. “If they weren’t married, we encouraged them to establish a second virginity,” she says.

Minnesota’s legislation has similar anti-choice origins. Impressed with the success of a safe surrender program in Alabama, Rip Riordan, a deacon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in St. Paul, and his wife, Lilly, suggested to their parish that they launch the same program using almost the same name. The parish embraced the idea, and eventually, so did the Minnesota state attorney general’s office, which helped them set the legislative wheels in motion. The bill was then drafted by two pro-choice Democrats: Representative Luanne Koskinen and Senator Leo Foley. But after the bill was introduced, a lobbyist received a call from a woman at an anti-choice organization, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Apparently, the woman was disturbed by Koskinen’s pro-choice stance. “She said, ‘Why did you get her to be the chief author of the bill? She’s going to open it up to the possibility of abortion,'” Koskinen says. The woman was worried that the bill would allow hospital personnel to provide birth mothers with information on contraception and abortion or refer them to family planning clinics. “It was a totally political thing,” says Koskinen. “This woman and her organization want me out of the legislature.”

Yet many of the anti-choice women and men involved in the safe surrender movement deny that the movement is antiabortion. Jodi Brooks, a news reporter who launched the county-wide A Secret Safe Place for Newborns program in Mobile, Alabama, agrees, insisting that baby abandonment legislation is not an outgrowth of the war on abortion. “These bills have no common denominator,” s

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