Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Abandoned Babies Week, #1: "You never forget seeing a dead baby"


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."


     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


  1. Well put. I never imagined anyone could a piece as clear as this without using the word Hypocritical even once.
    It is clearly implied, but (dare i say?) purposely ommited

  2. C'mon, Neil, 'fess up. Nobody ever called you "Stinkberg." That's got to be your invention...and a cute one at that.


    1. Probably not. They'd lack the creativity. Although it's possible.

  3. The reason legal abortion enrages these people so much is because it allows women to escape the ordeal of bearing a child against their will.

    They piously deny that, but occasionally the mask slips. I'll never forget the headline of the article I saw in some Christian publication or other about abortion: "She'll go home again, home again, jiggety-jig." Or another commenter: "It gives the woman an out she wouldn't have had otherwise."

    An "out." As in escape. From punishment.

    This is why they so desperately insist, against all experience and evidence, that women who abort are doomed to psychic torment, breast cancer and all manner of fanciful ills. They want that punishment, and if the law is going to deprive them of it, then by God they'll get it one way or another.

    Funny. Those women, according to them, are headed for hell--but that's not enough for them. They want their punishment now. It's almost as if they didn't really believe...nah, let's not go there.

    1. Wow, Scribe. That's quite the statement. Maybe my Christian upbringing has clogged part of my brain. I certainly believe in a woman's right to an abortion, but can't wrap my brain around thinking "these people" are *all* so evil.


    2. Evil is as evil does, Sandy. If someone wants to force women at gunpoint to bear children, I don't care how kindly and sweet they are about it.

    3. Yes, I'm guessing most of us, including those who support the right to have an abortion, are against it in the sense we would not want anyone we know to have to get one and a least some of us are insensitive enough to not care much if abortions were illegal. The insistence that an abortion is the murder of an infant is, in my opinion, a tactical mistake on the part of the pro-life movement, since it's clear that nobody, not even the Catholic Church, considers a woman who's had an abortion a murderer. And once you take the abortion-is-murder position, you can't back down from it; you're stuck; and even sensible compromises cannot be accepted.


    4. it's clear that nobody, not even the Catholic Church, considers a woman who's had an abortion a murderer.

      Kevin Williamson does. Remember him? He was a staffer on the Atlantic for about five minutes, until they found out that he thinks women who have abortions should be hanged.

  4. Today’s title reminded me of the greatest sorrow in my life. My daughter lost her son during delivery. I held the little guy in my arms that day. He would be 6 next week. I’m in awe of the way my daughter and son in law are dealing with the loss.
    I’m a pro life person and that’s my opinion. Your comment about the fertilized egg being the size of the period at the end of the sentence reminded me of the first sentence in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s book “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” where he describes the size of the known universe 14 billion years ago as “one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence “. Perhaps size doesn’t adequately describe inherent value.

    1. So...your daughter's baby died during delivery, and that somehow gives you the right to demand that strangers bear children, whether they want to or not?

    2. Wow. It was cathartic for me to talk about the loss of my grandson. My comments about being pro life are my opinion and everyone else is free to theirs. To quote a great movie: “Lighten up Francis”.

    3. You seem to be a little unclear on the concept of freedom. The whole point of "pro-life" policy is to pass laws to the effect that everyone else is not free to their opinion, if they happen to be unwillingly pregnant women whose opinion is that abortion is the best option for them.

  5. Always thought Carlin said it the best about abortion. https://genius.com/George-carlin-1996-hbo-special-on-pro-lifers-and-abortion-annotated

  6. As always, it's a mistake to paint all pro-life people with one broad brush. On the one hand, as Carlin says, some of the most vehement are people you wouldn't want to...be involved with. I think there are probably more than a few like me, who believe there is certainly a point at which an unborn child should be considered a person but don't know what that point is. But on that basis, I would never have an abortion myself. OTOH, since it is a murky area, and my position is a belief, not a fact, I don't feel that I should impose that on everyone else.

    There are many who sincerely do believe that human life begins at conception. No one knows for a fact that that is not true. So those people are not unreasonable to feel that ending that life is akin to murder. The fact that some people are charged with murder when they, for example, shoot a pregnant woman, shows there is some legal basis for that stance.

    I have a problem accepting that a fetus whose mother wants it is a baby, while a fetus whose mother doesn't is not.

    This is aside from the whole issue of the tactics of some pro-life people, which is another matter altogether.

    1. "There are many who sincerely do believe that human life begins at conception. No one knows for a fact that that is not true."

      With all respect, that's like saying "there are many who sincerely do believe that angels exist. No one knows for a fact that that is not true."

      Of course they don't, because neither "angels exist" nor "life begins at conception" have anything to do with facts or truth. They are unfalsifiable beliefs, grounded in theology. The difference between them is that a belief in angels is harmless to others, while a belief that life begins at conception leads to demands that women bear children against their will.

    2. All human lives begin at conception, in a certain sense. Nowhere close to all conceptions result in human lives, with natural causes being much more likely to be the reason that they don't than medical abortions. I don't see why it's so hard for many to wrap their heads around that reality. (Not that I'm suggesting that you don't, Coey.)

      Humans medically intervene in all manner of biological processes, for whatever reasons they see fit. Seems to me that the only reason the reproductive process is deemed to be sacrosanct is because of religious belief. Which is fine for those who choose to act in accordance with these beliefs. The problem is when such folks demand that their religious belief be applied to the entirety of a secular society in which there are many who don't believe that reproduction should be left to only natural outcomes.

      "more than a few like me, who believe there is certainly a point at which an unborn child should be considered a person but don't know what that point is" I don't know what that point is, either, but from all scientific evidence at this point, I don't believe it's anywhere close to conception.

    3. I think your analogy is a bit unfair, Scribe. There's no denying that at conception, the complete potential for human life exists, although a number of things have to also occur for a child to be born. Your belief that human life does NOT begin at conception is also just that, a belief.

      And as I said, I, and many others, do not hold that our beliefs (or, in my case, my uncertainty) must be imposed on others.

    4. As Carlin says the right to lifers don't care very much once the baby is born. I am ok with setting some limits on when an abortion can be performed. I am not ok with some of the things states have done into talking women out of having an abortion or even making it tougher to get one. And as usual abortion laws will only affect the poor or women who don't have enough money to go to Europe or Canada to get one.

  7. We can at least be thankful that mankind has progressed in such matters. The ancients were less squeamish about dead babies. The earliest codification of Roman family law proscribed infanticide for deformed infants and gave fathers the option of killing their female issue.


  8. Oops! Prescribed vice proscribed.

  9. On the rare occasions that I've had to deal with pro-life people in hostile situations, my response is always the same: "You don't like abortion? Then don't have one." Some of them have looked at me as though Satan himself had come up through the sidewalk, and a few have even have actually shrunk from me in horror. But it always ends the argument and leaves them in stunned silence. Which is the whole point.

  10. It's interesting that you singled out how mothers "back then" seemed to want the baby but "their social, financial environment" prevented it. Mothers are caretakers, even when they give away what they love.


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