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Patsy Summey spent more than a decade with a nonprofit providing education about Texas’ safe haven law. She distributed signs, gave presentations, helped with public service announcements and cold emailed fire stations. The lifelong educator wanted to spread the word: If people were searching for a way to safely and legally relinquish their newborn babies, there is a law to help them.
“Some, because they don't know about it, they don't realize, ‘I can go in the hospital and have this baby, leave and not take the baby with me.’ They can do that,” Summey said.
The idea behind Texas’ safe haven law is simple. Any parent can bring their baby who is less than 60 days old to a fire station, hospital or EMS station and hand it over, no questions asked. If the baby is unharmed, parents face no criminal charges and the Department of Family and Protective Services takes custody.
Texas passed the law in 1999 under Gov. George W. Bush. Since then, every other state has followed suit. Lawmakers envisioned the law as a solution to a spate of baby abandonments in Houston in the ’90s. The law’s proponents felt that if one baby could be saved, it was worth it.
But the measure lacked funding — proponents didn’t think the bill could pass with a price tag attached — so third-party advocates tried to spread the word with PSAs and signs. Promotion of safe havens relied on the goodwill of volunteers like Summey, who is a retired teacher, and her group, called Baby Moses Dallas.
The U.S. Supreme Court cited safe haven laws when it overturned Roe v. Wade. In his majority opinion finding that there’s no constitutional right to an abortion, Justice Samuel Alito mentioned that all states have safe haven laws, “which generally allow women to drop off babies anonymously.” During the Supreme Court’s oral arguments for the case last year, Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned why safe haven laws don’t take care of “the burdens of parenting.”
But in Texas the law is rarely utilized.
Just 172 infants have been relinquished under the safe haven law since 2009, according to data from the Department of Family and Protective Services. Twenty-one babies were surrendered under the law in 2020 — the most in one year during that time span. Seven infants have been relinquished so far this year.
For comparison, there were more than 50,000 abortions in Texas last year and the state had almost 370,000 live births in 2020.
Experts contend that the safe haven law isn’t used or known well enough to be a sufficient alternative to abortion. And because it allows parents to relinquish their newborns anonymously, the experts say, it’s difficult to gather data on why parents make this choice. They also say it’s not clear that the option will be utilized more in a post-Roe world.
“[The justices] seem to think that the existence of safe haven laws means that abortion can be outlawed with really no harm to women as a class, which I find very weird,” said Jessica R. Pliley, a history professor at Texas State University who studies women, genders and sexuality. “It's a very strange argument, because, first of all, safe haven laws in Texas … there's really just been not that many [newborns] surrendered or relinquished.”
In the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, justices’ majority opinion mentioned anti-abortion advocates’ belief that “a woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.”
But that is not clear in Texas, where relinquished babies enter the care of the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services. That agency is under federal monitoring after it was found to be routinely violating the constitutional rights of foster children, and has gone from “bad to worse” in recent years. Independent experts describe the system as “a disjointed and dangerous ... where harm to children is at times overlooked, ignored or forgotten.”
Abortion rights advocates say the safe haven argument ignores the idea that nine months of pregnancy can have life altering physical, emotional, financial and professional impacts, even if the mother gives up the baby in the end.
“The idea that safe haven laws can be a solution to kind of the trials and tribulations that women who are seeking abortion space is actually disingenuous,” Pliley said, “particularly when we think about the women who most need access to reproductive health care and to abortion services.”
Alito cited other arguments that “modern developments” — such as health insurance or government assistance covering the cost of childbirth, maternity leave policies and laws against pregnancy discrimination — provide other options or protections for pregnant people.
But people of color have been most likely to access abortion care, make up the majority of people who are poor or low income, and lack access to these resources, experts recently told the Tribune. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of reproductive age in the country. The state has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, an investigation by USA Today found, and Black women are disproportionately affected.
Anti-abortion advocates acknowledge those issues in their comments after the ruling.
“Now the pro-life movement can expend even greater resources toward providing compassionate alternatives to abortion for women with unplanned pregnancies,” the Texas Alliance for Life said in a statement. “Our goal continues to be to build a society where abortion is unthinkable, and women with unplanned pregnancies take full advantage of the vast resources available to them.”
But Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research program at the University of California San Francisco, said she’s not certain that there will be a significant increase in safe haven usage now that Roe v. Wade is overturned.
“When you talk about numbers that small,” she said, “you could double them in a year, and it could just be coincidental.”
Laury Oaks, a feminist studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said she also doesn’t believe safe haven relinquishments in Texas are going to dramatically increase once abortions are officially outlawed.
“I think that those who are in the know already know about safe havens, and they're not seeming to use safe havens to a vast degree,” Oaks said. “I guess that part of my thinking about why safe havens aren't going to dramatically jump is because other options, like legal, open adoption, are also going to continue to be options.”
Summey’s organization, Baby Moses Dallas — named after the biblical story of Moses’ adoption after his mother left him in a basket in the River Nile — was established in 2004 with more than a dozen volunteers. That number dwindled until Summey was one of a handful of helpers left to spread the word about the safe haven law in Dallas.
In 2016, the group decided it was time to relinquish their nonprofit status, partly because they lacked the formal structure needed to function, she said. Although the group isn’t a nonprofit anymore, she and another volunteer still make themselves available to respond to inquiries about the safe haven law.
She’s concerned that even with Roe v. Wade overturned, the Texas Legislature isn’t going to establish more support for the law — whether through funding, education or both.
“I would hope that it would be used more,” Summey said. “If a person who's pregnant doesn't know about the availability of that law, you know, then it won't be used.”
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