March 13, 2015

Newborn incubator bill passes House, heads to Senate

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A rise in abandoned infants in Indiana prompted one lawmaker to take action.

Rep. Casey Cox, R-Ft. Wayne, authored a bill to expand Indiana’s safe haven law to provide a monitored incubator for parents in crisis to safely give up their child without fear of punishment or face-to-face interaction. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the legislation.

The legislation, House Bill 1016, would authorize the state to approve qualifying service providers to install and operate a newborn safety incubator, which would be monitored for immediate response once a baby was dropped off.

Cox, who presented his bill to the House Public Health Committee on Feb. 19, said that the goal of the legislation is to “reduce infant mortality” in the state, saying this type of infant mortality is “completely avoidable.”

According to the Ambulance Medical Technician (AMT) Children of Hope Foundation, nationwide there are an estimated 200 abandoned newborns each year that are abandoned and die before someone finds them. Cox said that the actual number is estimated to be about three times higher due to the babies that die but are never found.

Cox explained that Indiana created safe haven laws in the 1990s in response to an increase in abandoned babies, which allowed parents to relinquish parental rights of a child in certain circumstances. He noted that all 50 states have some version of the safe haven law.

Cox said that as long as there are no signs of abuse, Indiana’s current safe haven law allows legal anonymity, but not full anonymity. Current law requires an in-person, face-to-face interaction between parents, a police officer, firefighter or hospital personnel in order to gain legal immunity protection.

“The face-to-face interaction is debilitating to the purpose of the safe haven law,” Cox said. “Can we further the policy? Can we make the existing safe haven law better by providing a greater amount of anonymity? I think we can.”

Cox said this concept of baby incubators dates back to the Middle Ages. In 1198, in response to numerous abandonments and drowning of babies in the Tiber River, Pope Innocent III directed certain monasteries to begin accepting abandoned infants anonymously through walls or windows. Troubled mothers could place their child in a cylinder, commonly known as a foundling wheel, which when turned around would deliver the baby from the outside to the inside of the monastery. The mother would ring a bell alerting the monastery that a baby had been put into their care.

Cox said that this concept, updated to modern-day standards, continues. The external-internal incubators today, also commonly referred to as “baby hatches,” are often built in police stations or hospitals. According to Cox, they are in operation all over the world and provide full anonymity for troubled parents wishing to relinquish their baby.

“There are numerous examples in Europe and Canada,” he said. Germany has 100 of these units in operation, he said, and Pakistan has 300. Other countries currently using the incubator process include Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Vatican City. The external-internal infant incubators are typically temperature- and climate-controlled, and emit a silent alarm notifying first responders that a baby has been dropped off.

Monica Kelsey, a firefighter in Fort Wayne, Ind., told the panel that her mother had abandoned her as an infant. “The problem with the safe haven law now is these girls have to walk into a facility and hand over their baby,” she said. “They have gone nine months without telling anyone they were pregnant, and they are in crisis mode. They don’t want to be seen, and this is the only alternative that we have to keep these children safe.”

According to Kelsey, 13 babies have been relinquished in Indiana under the safe haven law. Thirty-three have been abandoned. Thirteen of the 33 infants were found deceased. “We have a problem,” said Kelsey.

Sue Swayze, who represented Indiana Right to Life at the hearing, said, “We stand in support of the bill. We think it’s visionary. It helps a desperate mother with a place to put her baby.”

Indianapolis resident Linda Znachka, founder of “He Knows Your Name” ministry, also testified in support of the bill. Znachka said she formed her ministry in 2009 when a baby was found deceased in a downtown Indianapolis dumpster.

After calling the coroner’s office, Znachka learned that the baby would be buried in a mass grave. Znachko said she was “appalled” that in the 21st century there would be such disregard for a child’s dignity. This set Znachko on a five-year mission seeking to bring awareness and dignity to death for babies. Znachko legally adopts abandoned babies who have died, gives them a name and provides a proper burial.

House Bill 1016 passed the House on Feb. 24 by a 94-0 vote, and has been assigned to the Senate Public Health and Provider Services Committee. The bill is expected to receive a hearing by the Senate panel before the end of March.

(For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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