Daguerreotype of a dead baby, 1840s (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
April is Safe Haven month, a reminder that, for the first 30 days after giving birth, new mothers who cannot care for their infants can leave them, no questions asked, at fire houses, police stations and hospitals. Since the law was passed in 2001, at least 126 babies in Illinois have been sent on their way toward loving homes in this fashion, and saved the risk of dying after being abandoned, as often happens to newborns who are not delivered to a secure location.
I've written about the law over the years, and this week will be posting a couple of those columns here. This one was originally headlined "Show your concern over real babies."
You never forget seeing a dead baby. This one was maybe a month old, perfect features, mouth slightly open, bluish skin, swaddled in a blanket, waiting its turn on a stainless steel table at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office on Harrison Street.
Nearly 20 years later, I can see the baby as if it were in front of me now. My buddy, the photographer Robert A. Davis, and I were doing a profile of the first Cook County medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein. We had been watching Dr. Stein work since 5 a.m., and we hadn't flinched at the man who had laid on the floor of a transient hotel for two weeks in the August heat (well, OK, a little flinching when the sheet was first drawn back), or the young guy shot through a lung, or any of the other unfortunates who had been rolled in and cut up.
But the baby seemed a different matter entirely. Neither Bob nor I had kids yet, but we both must have known they were coming, because something told us that, story or no story, this wasn't a deposit we wanted to make in the old memory banks.
"C'mon," I said, nodding toward the door. "Union-mandated coffee break." We left the baby to Dr. Stein.
I mention this, because when young women abandon their babies, it often means not only a slow, painful death for the baby -- which would be bad enough -- but also a grisly discovery for whatever poor person stumbles upon the baby too late. A dead baby is hard enough to see in the morgue, where you expect it. I can't imagine what it does to a person who opens a trash can and finds one.
Tuesday is National Safe Haven Day, which Gov. Quinn has declared is Save Abandoned Babies Day in the state.
Illinois passed a temporary Safe Haven law in 2001, designating hospitals and fire stations as places where new mothers could abandon their unharmed newborns without fear of legal repercussion.
Originally the babies had to be 3 days old or younger, but after the law was made permanent in 2005, it was expanded to cover infants up to 30 days old, and police stations were included.
The Save Abandoned Babies Foundation estimates that 55 Illinois infants have been turned over to state care because of the law, including Lilli, whose mother left her at Engine 98's firehouse in 2008.
"We are so grateful that our daughter's birth mom knew about the law and was brave enough to follow through on that plan," said Lilli's adoptive mom, Carrie, a northwest suburban woman who didn't want her last name used out of privacy concerns.
"In her case she didn't know she was pregnant, she had delivered the baby at home, and knew enough about the law [that] she knew she would be able to bring her to the fire station."
Lilli is now 2, and likes baby dolls and books.
"Lilli has helped make our family complete," said her mother. "She's so, so cute. We couldn't imagine our lives without her."
BLOCK THAT METAPHOR
The clattering sound you hear is dozens of anti-abortion activists pounding away at their keyboards. "Dear Stinkberg," they write, "how can you even pretend to care about babies when you approve of women murdering their children in the uterus?? Please see the attached 12 color photographs of aforementioned diced children . . . ."
And the answer — not that they are interested in an answer, but let's pretend — is that I, like most Americans, differentiate between actual, born-and-alive-in-the-real-world-now babies and the fertilized egg the size of the period at the end of this sentence that typically gets aborted.
This of course flies by the anti-choice crowd, who have deemed these "babies" with such forceful finality that I'm sure the idea that they're simply locked into a convenient fantasy will shock, amuse and offend them. They've found their label, their metaphor, their easy code word, and they're sticking with it, just the way that the hate-immigration crowd has seized on the word "illegal," and though try as you may, nothing will make them perceive the falsity of their stratagem. ("Really? Concerned about illegal immigration only because it's illegal? What other 'illegal' things are you really worked up about? Just illegal immigration, huh? Nothing else? Thought so. Hmmmm. . . maybe it's the immigration part and not the 'illegal' part then, cause there's a lot more illegal stuff that you're ignoring. . . .")
Caring for actual babies is hard, and the state struggles to find enough foster homes to park them in. That's another reason why people gin up this outsized concern for other people's non-babies: It's easy. You can stand in the street holding a 5-foot photo of a tiny bloody foot, call it a day, tell yourself you've saved a lot of babies, when in reality you haven't changed one diaper. Merely professed your undying concern for proto babies, which hardly exist, and ignored a bunch of baby babies, who most certainly do exist and could use your help. And you felt morally superior to boot. Congrats.
Just wanted to put in my two cents, because these people act as if nobody else thinks about these things except them. Most people give this matter careful consideration, even those who are dismissed as hell-bound whores murdering their infants.
Respect for life means respecting those who are actually alive, even if they make decisions that go contrary to your personal religious scruples. It's a tough-to-grasp concept, I know, particularly if you don't even try to understand.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 12, 2010