As baby boxes close, Ohioans with unwanted pregnancies lose another option
Delhi Station Township Fire Station has something that sets it apart from most other fire departments in the state.
You might not notice it at first glance. But, near the corner of the exterior wall, there’s a box. In bold black lettering, it reads ‘Ohio Safe Haven Baby Box’. Under it are instructions on how to place your infant inside.
“You can see that it does indicate that a silent alarm will activate,” Fire chief Doug Campbell said, pointing to the sign. “As soon as the doors open, we are getting notifications.”
More than five years ago, SafeHaven Baby Boxes like these began cropping up across the state. Proponents of the boxes heralded them as a way to allow parents to surrender their newborns without fear of being recognized.
But, a 24/7 staffing requirement is shutting some of them down. Two have closed in the last six months. It’s sparked debate on the best way to provide options for Ohioans carrying unwanted pregnancies to term.
Under Ohio Safe Haven laws put into place two decades ago, new parents can surrender a child under 30 days old to staff at a hospital, fire or police station – anonymously and without fear of criminal prosecution.
But some feared the law wasn’t enough: parents would be too afraid of judgment or consequences to face a person and give up an infant, they posited.
So in 2017, Ohio got its first baby box.
“When someone’s in that amount of distress, do you really want to throw up another hurdle?” Campbell said. “We've tried to eliminate as many of those hurdles as possible to make this already difficult decision safer.”
Delhi Township installed its baby box just last year, after community members brought the idea to the attention of elected officials and the fire station.
“We want them to be educated, what the rights are, what they need to know, and the safest way to deposit or to transfer or surrender an infant in those circumstances,” he said.
Controversy and closures
But, not every SafeHaven Baby Box in Ohio has received the same community support.
Ohio used to have eight of these boxes, spread across the state. But, now, that number is down to six.
In central Ohio, a Sunbury fire station announced its box closure last fall because they don’t have the staff to man the box 24/7, a requirement issued by the Ohio Department of Health.
“It is possible that technology and alarms may fail, and if they fail at this most critical time, the onsite individual’s role is of the highest importance,” a spokesperson for the ODH said in a statement to The Ohio Newsroom.
The same happened this January in Union Township, where Chris Hicks is a resident. He brought the southwest Ohio station’s noncompliance to the attention of his township trustees and got it shut down.
He believes the boxes encourage young women to hide their pregnancies and not seek prenatal care.
“In terms of women with unplanned pregnancy, we can do so much better than encouraging them to put your baby in a box,” he said.
He said he’d rather have seen the around $10,000 the town spent on the box’s installation go to education on Safe Haven laws.
“That can be used in much more effective ways to help women and to help to raise awareness,” he said.
A rarity in Ohio
Despite all this back and forth, Safe Haven laws are rarely used, according to Jessie Hill, a professor at Case Western University who specializes in reproductive law.
Only 73 babies have been surrendered under Ohio’s Safe Haven Law in the 19 years it’s been on the books. And not one newborn has been surrendered to a baby box.
“Even if you lift the possibility of criminal punishment, even if you lift the possibility of social stigma, I think it's the emotional toll of doing that, that is probably preventing most people from making that decision,” Hill said.
Still, anti-abortion advocates and sympathetic judges are framing Safe Haven laws as an alternative to abortion. It was part of what the Supreme Court justices argued had changed since Roe v. Wade first solidified abortion as a right in 1973.
Hill said the laws are intended to prevent child neglect, not replace reproductive access.
“It really minimizes the incredible demands of carrying a pregnancy to term,” she said. “The health risks, the physical demands, the impact on one's ability to work, and you know all of that.”
“Even if you lift the possibility of criminal punishment, even if you lift the possibility of social stigma, I think it's the emotional toll of doing that, that is probably preventing most people from making that decision."Jessie Hill, law professor at Case Western University
If Ohio’s Republican legislative majority gets its way, abortion access will be further restricted in the state, and more people will likely be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
Hill said it’s unclear whether that will increase the number of babies surrendered under SafeHaven laws.
Back in Delhi, Campbell just wants his community to have more options for pregnant people, no matter how the laws shake out.
He hopes no one has to make the choice to surrender a child. But if they do, he said his community is ready.
“If everybody loses hope, and they run out of all their options, this is really the best we can do for them.”