Safe surrender sites are anti-abortion virtue signaling

More ‘choice’ shouldn’t justify the project to curtail reproductive rights

A safe-surrender site at San Francisco’s Fire Station 14, where new parents can leave unwanted babies. The Supreme Court of the United States used the existence of such sites as a justification for overturning abortion rights. (Wikimedia Commons: Alexander Klink)

This winter, a firehall in Landmark, Man. announced the opening of a Hope’s Cradle, a service that allows people, usually mothers, to safely surrender their infants in a temperature-controlled bassinet.

This is the second Hope’s Cradle in Canada (the first is located in Strathmore Alta., just outside of Calgary) and has been launched by Life Culture, an anti-abortion organization working out of Steinbach, Man. The purpose of a Hope’s Cradle, Life Culture executive director Susan Penner explains, is to provide an option for people who have nowhere else to turn.

“We’ll be very happy if it would save a baby’s life, if this is kind of a last resort for someone,” she told the CBC in an interview. “So that’s really the goal ... to provide a service for women who are just in awful circumstances.”

Taché Fire Chief Allan Rau told CTV News that Penner decided to fundraise for its installation after the discovery of a newborn baby – now known as Baby Moar – in a garbage bin in Winnipeg’s North End in June 2022. Apparently, Penner was deeply touched by this case, and reached out to Gems for Gems, the umbrella organization that founded the Hope’s Cradle in Alberta, to see about installing one in her municipality.

Baby Moar’s death was unquestionably tragic – and it is extremely worrisome to see how anti-abortion organizations like Life Culture are mobilizing the emotional impact of extreme events like this to justify their misplaced efforts at “preserving life.”

News coverage of Landmark’s safe-surrender site seems neutral and even positive. Reports, however, barely skim the surface of Life Culture’s anti-abortion mission.

“We are talking about babies being left in dumpsters,” Dr. Suzanne B. Haney, who chairs the Council on Child Abuse and Prevention at the American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN. “I mean, that’s a really easy bandwagon to get onto.”

Opposing safe-surrender sites, which are supported by what are called safe-havens laws in the United States, can be seen as encouraging infanticide.

But the situation isn’t as black and white as it may seem. In the US, since their inception following a wave of abandoned infants found in the Houston area in 1999, safe havens have been taken up as an enterprise of the political right and proponents of the anti-abortion movement.

“What began as a way to prevent the most extreme cases of child abuse has become a broader phenomenon, supported especially among the religious right, which heavily promotes adoption as an alternative to abortion,” Dana Goldstein writes in The New York Times.

During the meetings that culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. called safe haven laws a “modern development” that, in the majority’s view, eliminated the need for abortion.

The anti-abortion movement, adjusting its messaging itself amidst controversy and political polarization, seems to be adopting a nefarious tactic that involves recentering its mission around a carefully constructed image of expanded “choice.”

Take American attorney and “pro-life” activist Rebecca Kiessling’s career as an example. Her advocacy centres around defending mothers whose children have been conceived through rape, representing them in custody battles against their rapists.

Though, on first look, her project appears benevolent, further examination reveals the reason behind Kiessling’s advocacy: her goal is to end rape-exception abortion laws, which create provisions for rape and incest, present in more than three-quarters of American states.

Both Kiessling’s “activism” and safe-surrender sites are “pro-life” maneuvers to reframe the idea of choice, functionally justifying their campaign against abortion at a legal, constitutional level.

If people aren’t forced to share custody with their abusers, they might be less likely to choose abortion. If they have the option to leave an infant they are unable to care for at a safe-surrender site, they might be less likely to resort to a dumpster. And, implies this logic, with more options for mothers with newborn babies, less options at the prenatal stage will be necessary.

On top of this, safe-surrender sites’ efficacy is not proven. In the US, all 50 states have safe-haven laws, but only an estimated 115 legal surrenders took place in the country in 2021, in comparison to 100,000 domestic adoptions.

And though experts anticipate that the use of safe-surrender sites will increase in the US with the overturn of Roe vs. Wade, removing abortion rights does not necessarily mean people experiencing an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy will choose adoption. Studies show that when denied abortions, most people go on to raise their own children.

Ultimately, the reach of this new Hope’s Cradle in Landmark feels starkly disconnected from the event that inspired it.

Penner told the CBC that the choice to install the Hope’s Cradle in Landmark partially had to do with its “central location,” with many Manitoba towns within a 30- or 40-minute driving radius.

But the project was purportedly galvanized by events that transpired in Winnipeg, involving a young mother with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder who struggled with alcoholism, meth addiction and periodic houselessness. The likelihood that someone in her predicament would have the mobility and means to access a rural safe-surrender site seems quite slim.

If Penner really wanted to address the issues that had led to Baby Moar’s abandonment and death, she might have considered raising funds for a parenting program, a mental-health program or addictions services in Winnipeg, rather than procuring $20,000 to build a safe-surrender site in a rural location.

The disconnect between this project’s supposed intention and its probable impact highlights the use of safe-surrender sites as virtue-signaling devices within the socalled “pro-life” community.

Unlike some of the legislators who support them, these sites are not in themselves dangerous. They might even do some good. But we should all keep an eye on this movement as it picks up in Canada and remember that, in the US, safe-surrender services were cited as justification for removing abortion rights from the constitution in the case that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Haley Pauls is a writer, editor, and hospitality worker who spent several years in the nonprofit world, which informs her work to this day. She lives and works in Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 77, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 30, 2023)

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