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Patsy Summey has spent more than a decade with a nonprofit providing education on Texas shelter law. She handed out signs, gave presentations, helped with public service announcements and emailed fire stations. The lifelong educator wanted to spread the word: if people were looking for a way to abandon their newborn baby safely and legally, there is a law to help them.
“Some, because they don’t know it, they don’t realize, ‘I can go to the hospital and have this baby, go away and not take the baby with me.’ They can do it,” Summey said.
The idea behind Texas safe haven law is simple. Any parent can take their baby under the age of 60 days to a fire station, hospital or first aid station and deliver them, no questions asked. If the baby is safe, the parents face no criminal charges and the Department of Family and Protective Services takes custody.
Texas passed the law in 1999 under Governor George W. Bush. Since then, all other states have followed suit. Lawmakers saw the law as a solution to a wave of baby abandonment in Houston in the 1990s. Proponents of the law believed that if a baby could be saved, it was worth it.
But the measure lacked funding — supporters didn’t believe the bill could pass with a price tag attached — so third-party advocates tried to spread the word with public service announcements and signs. Promoting 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 refuge laws when it struck down Roe v. Wade. In his majority opinion concluding that there is no constitutional right to abortion, Judge Samuel Alito mentioned that all states have shelter laws, “which generally allow women to deposit babies in a manner anonymous”. During Supreme Court oral arguments in the case last year, Judge Amy Coney Barrett asked why shelter laws don’t take on “the burden of parenthood”.
But in Texas, the law is rarely used.
Only 172 infants have been abandoned under the Shelter Act since 2009, according to data from the Department of Family and Protective Services. Twenty-one babies were handed over under the law in 2020 – the most in a year during this period. Seven infants have been abandoned so far this year.
For comparison, there were more than 50,000 abortions in Texas last year and the state recorded nearly 370,000 live births in 2020.
Experts argue that the Safe Haven Law is not widely used or known to be a sufficient alternative to abortion. And because it allows parents to give up their newborns anonymously, experts say, it is difficult to collect data on why parents make this choice. They also say it’s unclear if the option will be used more in a post-Roe world.
“[The justices] seem to think that the existence of shelter laws means that abortion can be banned without really harming women as a class, which I find very bizarre,” said Jessica R. Pliley, professor of history at the Texas State University which studies women, gender and sexuality. “It’s a very strange argument, because, first of all, the shelter laws in Texas…there really hasn’t been a lot of [newborns] ceded or renounced”.
In Dobbs v. Jackson, the judges’ majority opinion cited the belief of abortion advocates that “a woman who puts her newborn baby up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.” .
But that’s not clear in Texas, where abandoned babies are cared for by the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services. This agency is under federal scrutiny after it was found to routinely violate 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 system… where harm to children is sometimes overlooked, ignored or forgotten”.
Abortion rights advocates say the safe haven argument ignores the idea that nine months of pregnancy can have a physical, emotional, financial and professional impact on life, even if the mother ends up abandoning the baby.
“The idea that shelter laws can be a solution to the kind of trials and tribulations that women who seek abortion space is actually fallacious,” Pliley said, “especially when we think of women who most need access to reproductive health care and 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 anti-pregnancy discrimination laws – offer other options or protections for pregnant women.
But people of color have been the most likely to access abortion care, make up the majority of poor or low-income people, and lack access to these resources, experts told the Tribune recently. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of childbearing age in the nation. The state has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation, according to a USA Today survey, and black women are disproportionately affected.
Abortion advocates acknowledge these issues in their comments after the ruling.
“Now the pro-life movement can devote even more resources to 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 where 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 wasn’t sure there would be a significant increase in the use of refuges now that Roe v. Wade is canceled.
“When you’re talking numbers that small,” she said, “you can double them in a year, and it could just be coincidence.”
Laury Oaks, a women’s studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said she also doesn’t believe shelter dropouts in Texas will increase significantly once abortions are officially banned.
“I think those in the know already know about safe havens, and they don’t seem to be using safe havens to a great extent,” Oaks said. “I guess part of my thinking about why shelters aren’t going to increase dramatically is that other options, like legal and open adoption, will continue to be options as well.”
Summey’s organization, Baby Moses Dallas – named after the biblical story of Moses’ adoption after his mother left him in a basket in the Nile – was established in 2004 with more than a dozen volunteers. That number dwindled until Summey was one of the few remaining aides to publicize the law of refuge in Dallas.
In 2016, the group decided it was time to give up its nonprofit status, in part because it lacked the formal structure needed to operate, she said. Although the group is no longer a nonprofit, she and another volunteer still make themselves available to answer inquiries about shelter law.
She fears that even with the cancellation of Roe v. Wade, the Texas Legislature isn’t going to build more support for the law — whether through funding, education, or both.
“Hopefully it will be used more,” Summey said. “If a pregnant person does not know the availability of this law, you know, it will not be used.”
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