A Philosopher's Blog

Nebraska’s Safe Haven Law

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2008

Safe haven laws allow parents to leave their children at hospitals without facing the risk of prosecution for child abandonment. These laws are generally intended to protect unwanted infants from simply being abandoned (perhaps in dangerous situations).

Nebraska recently passed its own safe haven law. Unlike most other such laws, this law does not have a fixed age limit. Currently, thirty five children (including teenagers) have been left at hospitals in Nebraska.

Naturally enough, this law raises various moral concerns.

On one hand, such safe haven laws can be seen as laudable. They no doubt serve to save some children from being abandoned in dangerous ways and, as such, help to save lives. They might even have some role to play in people deciding not to have abortions. Or perhap not. Assuming that protecting children from such harms is good, then these laws are morally commedable to that degree.

On the other hand, such laws can be criticized because they allow for childen to be anonymously left at hospitals with no legal consequences for the parents. As has been shown, this seems to encourage some people to abandon their children. Of course, it could be argued that the children would be better off being away from parents who would abandon them in this manner (the act of abandonment could be seen as a clear sign of being an unfit parent).

While thirty five children have been left at hospitals under Nebraska’s law, it is clear that the impact is not very significant on a large scale. Obviously, the vast majority of parents have not and would not give up their children. As such, while it is worrisome that some parents are leaving their children, it is important to keep in mind that this is a relatively rare phenomenon.

However, some parents might not want to give up their children-they might honestly believe that their children would be much better off if they were given to the state. If this is true, then such an “abandonment” could well be a commendable action. This is because the parents would be doing what is (as they see it) best for the children-and this is what parents should do.

One special concern about the Nebraska law is that it does not set an age limit in regards to the children who can be left. As such, some people have left older children at hospitals. Not surprisingly, this experience has tended to be rather psychologically traumatic for the children. Unlike infants, older children understand that they are being abandoned.

While setting an age limit would solve this specific problem, the fact that some people are leaving older children at hospitals shows that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. This problem is, of course, that there are a very few parents who are willing or need to abandon their older children.

The state (that is, us) have an interest in protecting these children. But, there is also the moral concern that parents need to be responsible for their children. This creates a bit of a moral tension: on one side, the law should require parental responsibility. On the other side, the law must protect the children. While Nebraska’s safe haven law is good intentioned, it does seem to need some adjustments.

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