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Save Babies the Simple Way

California's 'safe haven' law for unwanted newborns isn't effective enough. New York state offers a good model.

March 29, 2003

It will take more than access to emergency rooms and fire stations to rescue California's abandoned babies. State law provides places where desperate women can relinquish their newborns, no questions asked. But it hasn't saved as many lives as it should.

The "safe haven" rule allows newborns to be left at emergency rooms. Counties can add other sites as safe, legal options for those who might otherwise leave newborns in trash bins.

Sixteen mothers safely surrendered babies in 2002, most at emergency rooms. Two sought out fire stations, which Los Angeles and a few other counties have picked as safe havens. That same year, though, parents illegally abandoned 33 babies who somehow survived. Nine more were found dead.

Contrast that with New York state. Before its safe-haven law, an average of 12 newborns were found dead each year. In 2002, the law's first full year, at least 14 babies were safely relinquished -- and there were no deaths.

The New York law is simple. Leave the baby with any willing, responsible person or in any safe place, it says, as long as 911 is called right away.

One mother, carrying her baby to a hospital in a shopping bag, lost her nerve on the way and appealed to a day-care center. Another enlisted a friend to bring her newborn to an ambulance station.

Debbe Magnusen, founder of a Costa Mesa-based hotline for women considering abandoning their babies, says the New York law works better because many of these new mothers are afraid of officials and uniforms. They fear that hospital security cameras will be used to track them down.

There are valid reasons for the California law's restrictions. Emergency room staff members can give medical care to an infant whose mother probably sought no prenatal care. The law also tells mothers in clear terms what is a safe drop-off site and what isn't.

The problem is, babies are still dying. The New York model is less intimidating and easier for everyone to understand. No one has to worry whether a particular county allows fire stations or clinics to be safe havens. With an immediate call to 911, mothers will probably get medical care to their newborns faster than if they took the time to get them to a hospital. This is how the rescue plan for the babies of frightened, confused, possibly delusional mothers should be: simple.

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