2013-08-29

Baby Moses

I was stunned this morning when I read this news report of a young mother who showed up at a fire station and turned her baby over to local authorities. As the article states,
Under the Baby Moses Law, implemented in September 1999, people can drop off a baby up to 60 days old at a designated place, such as a hospital, a fire station or a police station, with no questions asked and without fear of prosecution.
The idea seems to be that some babies who might otherwise be murdered, neglected, subjected to human trafficking, etc., can be saved if society extends an opportunity to the desperate people who might feel they have no other choice. Basically, the authorities give desperate parents just enough hedonic incentive for the parents' basic moral values to kick in. They (presumably) think, "I won't go to jail and no one has to know about this; So, rather than do something hideous, I will merely do something shameful."

It is impossible to know how successful this program is. The news report states that seventy-five babies have been rescued under the Baby Moses Law since it was enacted in 2004. Fourteen of those cases have occurred this year. To measure the law's success, we would have to know two things: what would otherwise have happened to these abandoned babies, and the exact number of cases in which the at-risk babies suffered an inferior outcome.

I am inclined to believe that this is a good law, but there is an important marginal cost: Some parents who may have turned out to be great parents may have been provided with an incentive to let their fears get the better of them, and abandon their children.

That is a clear and indisputable loss, and the only way to reconcile that loss with the Baby Moses Law is through utilitarian consequentialist means. If the loss in lifetime utility suffered by children who become wards of the state is less than the potential loss of lifetime utility suffered by children whose lives are saved and made better than they otherwise would have been, then the law is "worth it," according to utilitarian moral calculus.

But readers of this blog know that I am not a consequentialist. This law makes me uncomfortable, but also slightly hopeful. It seems to me that this is a service that could easily have been provided by private individuals and organizations. Perhaps it is indeed offered by pro-life organizations and religious institutions, and we don't know about it precisely because the whole deal is that the event is not reported. Of course, putting a child up for adoption without going through the official channels is against the law, and most charities and religious organizations are reluctant to defy laws aimed at child protection.

In a kinder, gentler world, adoption laws and regulations would be more lenient, and the concept of a Baby Moses practice would be more widely appreciated by society at large, rendering this specific law irrelevant. But we do not live in that world, so I am moved to believe that this is a good law, for now. At least until abuse of the law becomes more prevalent.