Baby With the Bath Water

Legalizing baby dumping might feel good, but is it smart?

On a beautiful spring day in April, Debi Faris wept in public as she described her life work: burying dead babies. The mother of three from Southern California was testifying before a state legislative committee in Sacramento about why she is pushing for a bill that would make it legal to abandon infants within 72 hours of birth. Choked with emotion, Faris spoke about giving a "coffin for a cradle to newborns stuffed into trash cans by a narrow group of mothers, some fearful, some selfish."

Faris has become a celebrity of late, the subject of flattering articles in the New York Timesand Los Angeles Times, among others. Her calling does, indeed, wrench the hardest heart -- for the past several years she has been picking up unclaimed dead babies from city morgues in Southern California and putting them to rest in her Garden of Angels cemetery in Calimesa, an exurb of Los Angeles.

A few of the children entombed by Faris were illegally abandoned shortly after birth. They were left to die by mothers apparently too scared to turn somewhere for help. This inspired Faris to approach her district representative, state Sen. James L. Brulte, and ask him to legalize infant abandonment.

"If we save one baby's life," Faris said through sobs at the recent legislative hearing, "it will be worth whatever it takes to pass this law."

As Faris emoted, audience members cried with her. A woman exclaimed, sotto voce, "How could anyone vote against this bill?"

But there may be very good reasons to oppose the so-called baby dumping bill. It is just difficult to hold a clearheaded discussion of public policy in the face of such overwhelming, and understandable, sentiment. Rightly or wrongly, nobody wants to be perceived as being soft on baby killing.

Two prominent nonprofit organizations that advocate for baby rights, however, have gone against the rising political tide and come out against the Brulte bill. A key Assembly staffer is also very critical of the proposed law. Several legislators and special interest groups are demanding extensive changes to the bill because of legal and practical problems associated with it.

You might not know that there is real opposition to the Brulte bill, since most mainstream media and press reports have largely downplayed questions of the wisdom of legalized baby dumping. But there are some potentially troubling flaws in the idea, and in the legislation as it is now written.

It is currently a crime for a parent to abandon a child under the age of 14. The Brulte bill would allow anyone to abandon a child under the age of 72 hours at a hospital emergency room -- or another location designated by a county's board of supervisors -- without being subject to prosecution. The person dropping off the newborn infant would be able to do so anonymously. However, a coded identification ankle bracelet would be attached to the person dropping off the infant and to the baby. The bracelet is intended to allow the wearer to reclaim the baby within 14 days if she changes her mind.

Of course, a bracelet may be lost, or sold. Despite the noble intentions of the bill's framers, logical problems of this sort keep cropping up in trying to figure out how to make baby dumping work.

As merits of the bill were debated before the Judiciary Committees of the California Assembly and Senate on April 25, several legislators posed thoughtful objections to it. Some said it might violate rights of due process guaranteed in the state Constitution; others talked about the impracticalities of implementing a baby dump law. Then both committees voted unanimously to keep the bill alive.

Brulte's proposal is derived from a law passed last September in Texas, with strong support from Gov. George W. Bush. The bill also is similar to others now pending before 17 state legislatures. In the face of humanity's nearly universal love for babies, it is difficult for politicians to oppose these bills. But the concept of baby dumping has not been tested in reality, say the proposal's critics.

Brulte, a Republican Party bigwig, is up for re-election this fall in his Riverside-San Bernardino district near Rancho Cucamonga. He claims that a pilot program in Mobile, Ala., has saved five babies from the dumpster. He cautioned legislators, however, not to overestimate the problem, saying that, nationwide, only about 100 children a year are illegally dumped, most by panicked teenagers trying to hide undeniable evidence of their sexual activity from unsupportive parents.

"It's a small, but growing, problem," Brulte said.

San Franciscan Ron Morgan is national spokesperson for Bastard Nation, a 1,000-member organization that advocates opening birth records to adult adoptees. Morgan points to press accounts showing that, despite a massive public relations campaign in Texas, not a single baby has been turned over to the program. On the other hand, 12 infants have been illegally abandoned in Texas since the baby dump law was adopted, so there is apparently some question about the law's effectiveness. Bastard Nation opposes Brulte's bill because it "strips the infant of its identity; and, also, reverses a century of social policies that discourage abandonment."

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