As H.L. Mencken once said, "For every problem there is a solution that is neat and simple - and wrong."
In spite of shaky statistics about the number of infants "discarded" in public places in the US each year (one nationwide survey of newspapers revealed 108 "discarded" babies in 1998), many states have enacted or are actively considering new "safe haven" laws to prevent such tragic abandonments. (See story, page 2.)
The laws allow a woman to leave her baby at a hospital, medical clinic, police or fire station anonymously - mostly with "no questions asked," and mostly with no legal repercussions.
But a hard question needs to be asked before this idea goes too far: By making such "drop offs" safe and easy, is society actually saving lives or really just encouraging abandonment of babies?
Some 15 states have enacted laws that offer such protection. Eighteen others have similar legislation in the works.
The motives behind such laws are admirable. It can be shocking to hear stories of babies abandoned in dumpsters or alleys. Advocates justify the laws by saying, "If we can save just one baby's life, that's all that matters."
But states considering such laws should deeply probe the motives of mothers who commit such acts, and see if solutions can be applied there. Can mothers who are drug addicts be reached before giving up a baby, for example? Are they experiencing post-partum depression?
Some studies suggest mothers of discarded babies typically are not mature enough to consider alternatives or the consequences of their actions. Counseling, at the least, should be offered.
Lawmakers should guarantee safe harbors for both mother and baby. That would allow for a mother to have a change of heart at some point before legal adoption, or at least provide vital information about herself to the adoptive parents of the baby.
And making sure whoever is dropping off an infant is actually the birth parent, and not someone who may have taken the infant from the birth parent, is another serious issue.
Such laws have not altogether prevented the discarding of children - in Texas, for example, (the first state to pass a "drop off" law) 12 infants have been found, and none in so-called "safe places."
Moreover, the relative ease with which some states allow for dropping off unwanted babies may offer yet another "out" for young parents who might otherwise decide to keep an out-of-wedlock child.
Recently passed federal legislation to get better statistical data in this area should be heeded by states. And a bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Texas would require more study on the incidence of public abandonment of children.
Better reform on this troublesome issue will come when lawmakers take a larger and longer view, and do not resort to what may appear on the surface to be a logical quick fix.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor