More places install drop-off boxes for surrendered babies. Critics say they’re a gimmick

Anna Claire Vollers | (TNS)

The pitch feels noble, visceral: Prevent newborns from being discarded in dumpsters, and do it in a way that shields the mother and protects her anonymity while safeguarding the baby’s health and future.

In a growing number of states, the answer to the rare occurrence of illegal infant abandonment is a baby drop-off box. It’s an infant incubator secured behind a small door in the exterior wall of a public facility such as a hospital or fire station. A person can walk up to the box, open the door, place an infant into the bassinet inside, close the door and walk away.

The bassinet is temperature controlled, ventilated and equipped with alarms that alert emergency responders, who arrive within minutes. The baby is placed into foster care or for adoption, and the parent is not prosecuted for abandonment.

Installing baby boxes has become increasingly popular as lawmakers, including those in states with the most restrictive abortion laws, look for ways to show support for pregnant women and new parents.

But a growing chorus of experts and adoption advocates argue that however well-intended, baby boxes are a gimmick, unsupported by scientific research, that won’t address the real problems facing parents and newborns. They also worry about the inability to establish informed consent or medical histories.

“I think what legislators hear is, ‘If you don’t do this, there will be dead babies abandoned on the streets of your city,’” said Gregory Luce, a Minnesota attorney and founder of the Adoptee Rights Law Center who has been a vocal opponent of baby boxes.

“They don’t want that to happen on their watch, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, so they pass it without further investment in prenatal or postnatal services for women, or mental health services, or services for women in crisis.”

At least 19 states now allow the use of newborn drop-off boxes, though more than half the incubators that have been installed are in Indiana, the home state of the company that makes them. Lawmakers have introduced bills this legislative session in 15 more states: Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Wyoming.

Baby boxes have proven surprisingly bipartisan, despite their ties to the conservative anti-abortion movement. And they’re media-friendly: The surrender of infants into the boxes regularly makes the local news, and cities often hold ribbon-cutting-style ceremonies when a box is installed.

“We know [baby boxes] work because we’ve seen it,” said Tennessee Republican state Rep. Ed Butler, the sponsor of a baby box bill in his state. “My objective is to save a baby’s life, end of discussion.”

But Lori Bruce, a bioethicist at Yale School of Medicine, described baby boxes as a poor solution to infant abandonment, “because we know things like prenatal care are more integral to the health of an infant, as well as to the birthing parent.”

She would like to see states consider allowing women to labor and deliver at hospitals anonymously — as Jane Does — so they can relinquish their newborns in a safer setting.

Babies in boxes

The overwhelming majority of the more than 200 active baby boxes currently in place in at least 15 states are provided by one company: a nonprofit called Safe Haven Baby Boxes Inc.

Monica Kelsey is the founder. An adoptee herself, she is closely aligned with the anti-abortion rights movement and travels around the country, speaking at news conferences when infants are surrendered, holding “blessing” ceremonies to dedicate new boxes, and spreading baby box awareness to more than 800,000 followers on her popular TikTok account.

“I do think women and men are scared when they get into a moment of crisis and they freak out, not knowing what to do,” she told Stateline. “We’re out there in the public every single day, educating and bringing awareness that they have options, so when they do have a crisis, they will come to us.”

The nonprofit says 42 babies have been surrendered to its baby boxes since the first one opened in Indiana in 2016. There’s no national database of infant abandonments — legal or illegal — and many states don’t track those numbers.