You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Some Solution

Safe Haven “Baby Boxes” Are a Medieval Horror Show

The right touts them as proof that the need for abortion rights is passé. But they’re rooted in an old Catholic practice that scarred and stigmatized women for centuries.

A Safe Haven sign hangs at a Chicago Fire Station
Nam Y Huh/AP/Shutterstock
A Safe Haven sign hangs at a Chicago fire station.

To get a clearer look at America’s future landscape as a nation without freedom of choice, carved from the medieval mindset of today’s Supreme Court, it helps to cross an ocean—and a few centuries. Having recently finished a book about the abusive treatment of unwed mothers in Italy in the 1950s and ’60s, and the generational damage that ensued, I feel as if I’ve emerged from a dizzying time collapse with a spectral glimpse of what lies ahead.

In his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Samuel Alito cited certain “modern” developments that obviate the need for abortion. Included on his list is “that States have increasingly adopted ‘safe haven’ laws, which generally allow women to drop off babies anonymously.”

The idea behind safe haven laws, which now exist in all 50 states and began in—surprise—Texas in 1999, is to permit a woman to abandon her baby anonymously without fear of criminal prosecution. This type of law is not, in Justice Alito’s words, a “modern development” but a medieval practice, invented in Italy in the thirteenth century and still in place today. As generations of twentieth-century Italian mothers and their children can attest, giving a woman no choice but to anonymously surrender her baby is a route to ruined lives.

The Roman Catholic Church, for moral reasons—especially under the ultraconservative reign of Pope Pius XII during the 1940s and ’50s—and the Italian State, in order to protect male inheritance rights, encouraged anonymous surrender, guaranteeing that birth fathers could just walk away and placing all the responsibility, and blame, upon women. Powerless and terrified, mothers often didn’t understand the relinquishment forms they were made to sign. Yet their children now became wards of the state and were issued birth certificates with fictional last names and placed into the busy machine of domestic and international adoption.

Adopted children in America and Italy describe how falsified documents and sealed birth records hid lifesaving medical information. Stripped of their birth identity—“I don’t remember signing up for the witness protection program,” one adoptee told me—they spent years on hopeless quests to find their birth mothers or to experience bittersweet late-in-life reunions. Using the tools of genetic genealogy, they desperately chase a ticking clock.

Many of the adoptees I spoke with learned during their searches that their mothers had died when they were in their fifties and sixties. Considering the typically long lifespan of Italian women, I wondered whether the trauma of giving up a baby anonymously and the isolation from family and community might have contributed to the medical issues they later suffered.

One of my interview subjects in Italy, the second daughter of a woman forced to surrender her firstborn after a professor raped her, felt certain that the trauma of rape and surrender contributed to her mother’s early death: “My mother let herself be overwhelmed by the events that happened. She couldn’t make choices. I was 10 when she had her first illness. She died when I was 32. Imagine! Twenty-two years of hospitals, diseases, one after another.”

By the late 1970s, a decade that brought legalized birth control and abortion to Italy, the foundling homes finally closed, ending this cruel twentieth-century history. Ironically, however, America’s Supreme Court has dragged us even further back into Italy’s past, suggesting the use of safe haven “baby boxes.”

These boxes are literally just that—a box about the size of a wall oven where a mother can leave her baby. They are copies of another medieval Italian invention, the ruota, the abandonment wheels that were embedded in the windows of foundling homes across Italy. With a turn of the wheel, the infant rotated inside the foundling home—and forever outside the mother’s reach. The woman then rang a bell to alert an attendant that her baby had entered the institution. Hundreds of thousands of babies died from malnutrition and disease under this system, yet the Church had decided that a baptized baby, whatever its foundling home fate, was preferable to life with a sinful mother. Social pressure closed the wheels in the late nineteenth century, but this cruel device survived more than half a millennium after the Middle Ages.

As the past always lives in the present, Italy’s right-to-life movement reintroduced a high-tech version of the ruota in 2006, renaming it the “cradle for life.” And the wheel kept on turning, making its maiden voyage to America in 2016. Safe haven baby boxes have been installed in over 100 firehouses and hospitals across America’s heartland and Southern states whose legislatures have passed safe haven laws. The terrified modern mother stripped of reproductive choices, depicted in safe haven literature hidden by a hoodie, sounds an alarm, as her medieval predecessor once rang a bell, alerting a fireman to take the infant to a social service agency.

To many women, this scenario is one of unimaginable distress and degradation, a new mother so desperate and alone in the world that she hides from public view to deposit like a parcel ready for shipping the baby she has carried in her womb for nine months. In several justices’ worldview, however, the baby boxes are a logical solution to the end of abortion rights. During last December’s oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned why, if a woman can have an abortion at 23 weeks, the state cannot require her to carry the baby for 15 or 16 more weeks and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion. “Why didn’t you address the safe haven laws, and why don’t they matter?” she asked. In other words, Coney Barrett is saying, keep the baby until term, and then relinquish it anonymously—perhaps into a safe haven box. Or as Kate McKinnon memorably put it in her SNL parody of the justice, “Just do the nine and plop.”

Justice Alito added the diminished stigma of unwed motherhood to his matchbox of arguments that set aflame a half-century of legal precedent. Yet as legislatures pass draconian measures to punish women seeking abortions, along with anyone who assists them, how naïve to imagine the old stigmas won’t return. Except today, the shaming will be one social media click away.  

In America, it is not the Catholic Church but the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority are of the Roman Catholic faith, dictating how women should live, while the rest of a divided and seemingly powerless government acquiesces. Whether it’s Pope Pius XII preaching from the pulpit or modern black-robed justices dictating opinions from the bench, the zealous desire of these arbiters to set the moral boundaries of a woman’s life seems to be our inescapable plight.