free counter
World

Safe Haven “Baby Boxes” Are a Medieval Horror Show

To
get a clearer look at America’s
future landscape as a nation without
freedom of choice, carved from the medieval mindset of today’s Supreme Court, it helps to cross an ocean—and a few centuries. Having recently
finished a book about the abusive treatment of unwed mothers in Italy in the 1950s
and ’60s, and the generational damage that ensued, I feel as if I’ve emerged
from a dizzying time collapse with a spectral glimpse of what lies ahead.

In
his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice
Samuel Alito
cited certain “modern” developments that obviate the need for
abortion. Included on his list is “that States
have increasingly adopted ‘safe haven’ laws, which generally allow women to
drop off babies anonymously.”

The idea behind safe
haven laws, which now exist in all 50 states and began in—surprise—Texas in
1999, is to permit a woman to abandon her baby anonymously without fear of
criminal prosecution. This type of law is not, in Justice Alito’s words, a “modern
development” but a medieval practice, invented in Italy in the thirteenth century and still in
place today.
As generations of twentieth-century Italian mothers and
their children can attest, giving a woman no choice but to anonymously
surrender her baby is a route to ruined lives
.

The
Roman Catholic Church,
for moral reasons—especially under the ultraconservative reign of Pope Pius
XII during the 1940s and ’50s—and the Italian State, in order to protect male inheritance rights, encouraged anonymous
surrender, guaranteeing that birth fathers could just walk away and placing all
the responsibility, and blame, upon women. Powerless and terrified, mothers often
didn’t understand the relinquishment forms they were made to
sign. Yet their children now became wards of the state and were issued birth
certificates with fictional last names and placed into the busy machine of
domestic and international adoption.

Adopted
children in America and Italy describe how falsified documents and sealed birth
records hid lifesaving medical information. Stripped of their birth identity—“I don’t remember signing up
for the witness protection program,” one adoptee told me—they spent years on
hopeless quests to find their birth mothers or to experience bittersweet
late-in-life reunions. Using the tools of genetic genealogy, they desperately
chase a ticking clock.

Many
of the adoptees I spoke with learned during their searches that their mothers
had died when they were in their fifties and sixties. Considering the typically
long lifespan of Italian women, I wondered whether the trauma of giving up a
baby anonymously and the isolation from family and community might have
contributed to the medical issues they later suffered.

One of my interview subjects in Italy, the
second daughter of a woman
forced to surrender her firstborn after a professor raped her, felt certain that the trauma of rape and
surrender contributed to her mother’s early death: “My mother let herself be
overwhelmed by the events that happened. She couldn’t make choices. I was 10 when
she had her first illness. She died when I was 32. Imagine! Twenty-two years of
hospitals, diseases, one after another.”

By
the late 1970s, a decade that brought legalized birth control and abortion to
Italy, the foundling homes finally closed, ending this cruel twentieth-century
history. Ironically, however, America’s Supreme Court has dragged us even
further back into Italy’s past, suggesting
the use of safe haven “baby boxes.”

These boxes are literally just that—a box
about the size of a wall oven where a mother can leave her baby. They are copies
of another medieval Italian invention, the ruota, the abandonment wheels
that were embedded in the windows of foundling homes across Italy. With
a turn of the wheel, the infant rotated inside the foundling home—and forever
outside the mother’s reach. The woman then rang a bell to alert an attendant
that her baby had entered the institution. Hundreds of thousands of babies died
from malnutrition and disease under this system, yet the Church had decided
that a baptized baby, whatever its foundling home fate, was preferable to life
with a sinful mother. Social
pressure closed the wheels in the late nineteenth century, but this cruel
device survived more than half a millennium after the Middle Ages.

As
the past always lives in the present, Italy’s right-to-life movement
reintroduced a high-tech version of the
ruota in 2006, renaming it the “cradle for life.” And the
wheel kept on turning, making its maiden voyage to America in 2016. Safe haven
baby boxes have been
installed in over 100 firehouses
and hospitals across America’s
heartland and Southern states whose legislatures have passed safe haven laws. The
terrified modern mother stripped of reproductive choices, depicted in safe
haven literature hidden by a hoodie, sounds an alarm, as her medieval
predecessor once rang a bell, alerting a fireman to take the infant to a social
service agency.

To many women, this scenario is one of unimaginable
distress and degradation, a new mother so desperate and alone in the world that
she hides from public view to deposit like a parcel ready for shipping the
baby she has carried in her womb for nine months. In several justices’ worldview,
however, the baby boxes are a logical solution to the end of abortion rights. During
last December’s oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health
Organization
, Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned why, if a woman can have
an abortion at 23 weeks, the state cannot require her to carry the baby for 15 or
16 more weeks and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion. “Why didn’t
you address the safe haven laws, and why don’t they matter?” she asked. In other
words, Coney Barrett is saying, keep the baby until term, and then relinquish it
anonymously—perhaps into a safe haven box. Or as Kate McKinnon memorably put it
in her SNL parody of the justice, “Just do the nine and plop.”

Justice
Alito added the diminished stigma of unwed motherhood to his matchbox of
arguments that set aflame a half-century of legal precedent. Yet as legislatures
pass draconian measures to punish women seeking abortions, along with anyone
who assists them, how naïve to imagine the old stigmas won’t return. Except today,
the shaming will be one social media click away.  

In
America, it is not the Catholic Church but the Supreme Court, whose
conservative majority are of the
Roman Catholic faith, dictating how women should live, while the rest of a divided and seemingly powerless
government acquiesces. Whether it’s
Pope Pius XII preaching from the pulpit or modern black-robed justices
dictating opinions from the bench, the zealous desire of these arbiters to set
the moral boundaries of a woman’s life seems to be our inescapable plight. 

Read More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker