When a custodian at a church in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. returned from lunch on Monday, he heard cries and discovered a surprising sight: a newborn baby, with umbilical cord still attached, resting in the manger at the church’s nativity scene.
The baby, a boy who weighed about five pounds, was taken to a local hospital by emergency crews and appeared to be in good health, Christopher Heanue, pastor of the Holy Child of Jesus Church wrote on the church’s Facebook page. New York police are currently trying to determine who abandoned the infant.
The discovery of this baby highlights the problem of abandoned babies in states across the country, with many lawmakers and activists attempting to grapple with how best to ensure the infants are not injured.
One solution, adopted in New York, takes a more compassionate approach, allowing parents who abandon newborn children up to 30 days old in a safe manner, such as leaving them at a hospital, church, or police or fire station when staff are present, to remain free from prosecution.
An estimated 2,800 babies have been saved by such laws across the country, an Illinois nonprofit found, The Christian Science Monitor reported in April. But about 1,400 other infants have been abandoned illegally, with about two-thirds of them found dead, according to the group, Save the Abandoned Babies Foundation.
Under the NY Abandoned Infant Protection Act, which was originally adopted in 2000 in a wave of similar laws from 45 states, parents could originally abandon unwanted babies of up to five days old. It was amended a decade later to allow parents to leave older children as long as they do so safely. Leaving children without anyone present, such as in the case in Queens, is still a crime.
In Indiana, a statewide effort to install portable incubators where parents can deposit their babies at locations around the state was nixed this year by a state commission because of concerns about the cost and legal issues around using the boxes.
The “baby boxes” would expand the state’s safe haven law, allowing additional anonymity because parents could deposit the infants without speaking to anyone. Advocates say this would discourage parents from abandoning unwanted children in unsafe locations like trash cans or the woods, the Fort Wayne News Sentinel noted in an editorial.
“Instead of approving the baby boxes, commission members voted to focus on better educating the public on the state’s Safe Haven law. We hope they are serious about that task. It’s a good law that can save the lives of unwanted babies, but it can’t work if not many people know about it. And maybe even a few more could be saved if parents did not have to risk encountering a person who might try to talk them out of it. That is the promise of baby boxes,” the paper wrote.
The baby boxes, which are heated and padded, were also wired to notify emergency personnel immediately when a baby was left inside it.
But baby boxes have proved controversial, especially in Europe, with a United Nations committee condemning them in 2012 as violating children’s rights to identify and maintain a personal relationship with their parents. Instead, they argued, countries should focus on providing resources about family planning, easy access to contraception and social support, which might prevent parents from resorting to the drastic solution of abandoning their unwanted children.
“Baby boxes do not operate in the best interest of the child or the mother," Maria Herczog, a sociologist and member of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child told the Monitor in 2012. “Just leave your baby, these boxes seem to say. I don’t think any community could send this message to any vulnerable person,” she added.
But advocates, who range from an Indiana firefighter (a pro-life activist) to other human rights groups, argue that baby boxes are a last defense for women who feel they have no other option.,
“These women are, in general, victims of a lack of adequate social networks and state public services. In the absence of such services, these boxes are a plausible solution to ensure the child's survival and guarantee women's rights,” Christina Tango, Children’s Rights Assistant for the International Reference Center for the Rights of Children Deprived of their Family, told the Monitor in 2012.
For the baby in New York, the church’s pastor said he was hoping someone would adopt the child or the parents would be identified.
"Let us pray for this child," Mr. Heanue wrote, according to the Associated Press "for his parents and for whomever will receive him into their home."