Beyond the occasional mass shooting, now as unremarkable as a traffic jam or a tornado, there isn’t much Big News out of central Indiana. So when a baby was deposited in a box affixed to the Carmel Fire Department last month, it was Big News.
It has thus far proved to be the feel-good Big News of the year for Hoosiers. All the local media outlets were slipping in their own saliva to cover it, and the comments sections were mostly full of praise for the “wonderful” baby boxes, the “courageous mother” who made a “heartbreaking decision,” the “heroic firefighters” who retrieved the baby in less than a minute, and so on. The Carmel fire chief said: “It was so adorable.”
It was even Big News to Todd Young, our all-American goodboy soldier/lawyer/senator. On his social media accounts, he wrote: “Baby boxes are saving lives across Indiana and giving mothers a place to turn. Thanks to all those who support the baby box movement.” “Ha ha, that’s a funny thing to say,” I thought. “’The baby box movement.’”
Then another baby was left at the same fire department. Then another. Three deposits in five weeks. And that’s just in Carmel.
Again, Young posted effusive praise for infant collection devices. In fact, if you dig through Young’s social media, you’ll find several posts on the subject from the last few years, including one personal visit by the senator to a Seymour fire station. Nearly all these posts mention Safe Haven Baby Boxes, Inc., a nonprofit that installs human deposit receptacles in fire stations all over the Midwest. At least one has a photo of Young with Safe Haven’s founder, former Indiana firefighter Monica Kelsey.
Safe Haven has its own robust social media presence. Most of its posts are celebrations of new box installations (“Welcome to the party, Fort Wayne!”) or of successful infant retrievals (“Welcome to the World, Sweet Baby!”). You can also buy t-shirts with witty slogans at their online shop (“I love Jesus but I cuss a little”).
These boxes are saving tiny little lives? Great. But something about Young’s attention seemed to transgress boundaries of ordinary tractor-and-hay-bale-photo-op politicking. Baby hatches (or “foundling wheels”) were common from the 12th to the 19th century. These baby drop-off points have fallen out of favor in the industrialized world because we have mostly figured out how to afford the upkeep on our kids, even if just barely. And now all of a sudden they’re popping up everywhere? Senators are tweeting about them? “I’m a red-state lifer and therefore used to weird Dickensian shit,” says I, “but something ain’t right here.”
Then it hit me: “Christ! This is their policy solution!”
You see, the GOP has a bit of maneuvering to do. They have to figure out how to soft-land this anti-abortion blimp they’ve been flying for the last 50 years. If unskilled hands are at the yoke, they’re going to crash into a tower of “How are people with no health care, no parental leave, and no money going to raise the children they are forced to give birth to?” So far, they’ve mostly answered this question the way they answer all policy questions: With more questions. (What about critical race theory? Isn’t it terrible about trans girls in sports? Aren’t lizard-people operating secret pizza sex dungeons in D.C.? Etc.) But if babies start to die of malnutrition — a possibility even now, with domestic infants in comparatively short supply — they know there’s a risk that things could get messy.
Faced with this problem, Republicans could support modest Medicaid and FMLA expansions, extended unemployment benefits, food stamps and other social programs. Or they could simply follow the lead of some European countries and allow for anonymous births at hospitals. Or they could come up with some minimalistic, medieval monstrosity that sticks the parent with a hospital bill and/or the risk of unassisted home birth and act like it’s an honest-to-god policy solution.
Well folks, if you know American conservatism, you know where this is going.
Baby hatches began their American comeback tour in 2016, around the same time that the end of Roe became a real possibility and not just a Falwellian wet dream. The first two were installed in northern Indiana courtesy of — you guessed it — Safe Haven Baby Boxes, Inc. The company has installed over 100 more in the last five years.
Suspect timing alone wouldn’t mean that baby boxes are about to be the GOP’s universal answer to the social ills that are coming post-Roe. But you have to wonder why else a goober like Todd Young would pay so much attention to them. Is it really because they save lives? The Safe Haven Baby Boxes, Inc., website says: “Since April 2016, when the first box was installed, there have been no dead abandoned infants in the state of Indiana.” Ok, but I couldn’t find much evidence of “dead abandoned infants” ever in the state of Indiana, let alone any evidence that firehouse incubators were preventing such deaths. Safe Haven posts stories about “infants in dumpsters” from elsewhere in the country, but most of these end up being women who have panicked after a miscarriage or stillbirth. There’s an oft-repeated assertion that the boxes prevent abortions, but come on. What pregnant person has ever said “I was going to get an abortion, but luckily now I have the option of carrying to term, delivering a baby and leaving it in a night drop?”
The real tell came when Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who, at the hearing in the case that is about to overturn Roe, asked this question: “Both Roe and Casey [v. Planned Parenthood] emphasized the burdens of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don’t the safe haven laws [allowing anonymous infant surrenders] take care of that problem?”
What Aunt Amy is saying here is not that the boxes prevent abortions, but that the “burdens of parenting” are no longer a thing because you can drop the baby in a box.
Add to all this the fact that Safe Haven Baby Boxes, Inc., is propelled by extreme anti-choice ideology, and you start to see why Republicans are spilling so much seed over baby hatches. Safe Haven’s website boasts that it “has referred over 500 women to crisis pregnancy centers.” Founder Monica Kelsey’s personal website explains that “Monica has been sharing her pro-life views with millions of people since February 2011 and works diligently to support pro-life legislators who take a stand to defend the lives of children conceived in rape.” See? Rape is no excuse because you can drop the baby in a box.
Stories about rescued kids sound nice, but when Senator Young gushes about the “baby box movement,” he’s really broadcasting the GOP’s answer to “what do we do post-Roe?” It’s another question: “Why are you complaining about having to raise your rapist’s child when you could have just left it in one of the boxes affixed to fire stations all over the country? Everyone knows about those, they were Big News a while back.” •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. His book “Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class” is available for preorder wherever you get your books.
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