Why Do Women Abandon Their Babies? Here’s What Can Be Done To Help

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A 24-year-old woman in China was recently arrested after attempting to mail her baby to an orphanage. It's an unbelievably sad, but awfully familiar story that pops up on newsfeeds every so often, leaving many people to wonder: Why do women abandon their babies, and what can be done about it? Infant abandonment, in which women across the world give up their children (sometimes only just born), either to institutions and hospitals or in public places, deserves more attention than just a blip on your radar. It goes deep, and encompasses everything from reproductive rights to childcare to women's economic empowerment.

Defining abandonment legally is tricky. For most countries, however, it encompasses babies left deliberately in public or private spaces in a permanent way, and babies left anonymously in specially created places for the purpose. Babies given up for formal adoption at birth, particularly when the parent's identity is known, aren't held within the same category as abandonment, because anonymity is seen to be necessary for a child to be "abandoned." The entire idea seems shocking, but it's an issue worldwide. So what's actually behind these tragic stories — and what can be done to help the mothers who make this heart-wrenching decision?

A History Of Infant Abandonment

The Foundling Museum

Abandoning infants, either to other families or to the elements, has been a part of most of human recorded history. We know that the Greeks and Romans either exposed unwanted babies or gave them to relatives, sometimes as slaves. Infant abandonment is substantively less common for Americans today than it was for Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the idea hit its peak. In 18th century Toulouse, France, up to a quarter of all babies born in the city were known to be abandoned, and in Paris between 1750 and 1789, abandoned children made up nearly a third of all births — and these are the ones we know about. Historians have noted that the trend became so extreme in the late 19th century that an "abandonment crisis" hit European authorities. Some of these children were toddlers or older, but a large proportion of them were infants. By contrast, only about 50 babies are thought to be abandoned in the UK yearly, while estimates of the number of babies abandoned in the United States between 1999 and 2015 hover at around 4,400.

The phenomenon of the “foundling” was a fixture of 19th century European society; they've appeared in literature and art, and were regarded as a potential source of labor and a way in which to guarantee a better upbringing away from "immoral" parentage. The women who gave up babies (often to "turning cradles" installed by churches or hospitals in the walls, to hide the parents' identities) tended to be mythologized, either as “fallen” or starving women who were to be pitied, or as lacking their natural feminine instincts, and therefore better not raising their babies anyway. This was also, however, a society structured around the idea that sending a child away from their parents wasn't abnormal. Families both noble and poor would send their children to relatives and friends, a practice that continued into the 20th century: My husband's grandfather, born to a mining family in the Welsh valleys, was sent to live with relatives because his own parents couldn't afford to feed him. Married couples who were poverty-stricken could occasionally reclaim their children from foundling hospitals once they had enough money to support them. Against that backdrop, abandoning infants to social institutions wasn't the shocking phenomenon it is today.

The act of infant abandonment in history has also been inflected by race, religion and class. Colonial America's history of infant abandonment was affected by its British history: the English Poor Laws came with the Puritans, and they demanded that abandoned babies be supported by the community. In the American South after the Civil War, unmarried Black mothers had fewer options for unwanted pregnancies than white mothers did, and so were more likely to keep their infants than give them up, but were also more likely to commit infanticide. As the United States began to invest more in public welfare programs for mothers and infants in the early 20th century, the rate of abandonment started to drop.

It's clear that, while abandonment isn't nearly as common as it once was, it's still a concern, so what's happening to the women who decide that abandonment is best for their babies?

What Causes Women To Abandon Their Babies?

It’s assumed in Western countries that women who abandon their kids must have some kind of psychological issue that has prevented their major bonding with their children. But many other factors across the globe contribute to the decision to give up an infant to an organization, or simply leave it in the street. And the biggest ones are founded around the pressure surrounding “acceptable” motherhood.

In countries where the cultural and legal punishments of having children out of wedlock are severe, unsurprisingly, mothers who abandon their children are more often than not unmarried. While statistics aren't available to the public, the United Arab Emirates, which observes Sharia law and therefore views childbirth outside of wedlock as against Islamic doctrine, has seen repeated cases of infant abandonment in public places and charges of adultery against mothers with illegitimate children. And Sudanese society, UNICEF reported in 2003, often carries strong beliefs "that an abandoned child will inevitably follow the 'immoral behavior' of the birth parents, that unmarried mothers should be severely punished, that illegitimate birth was [sic] a sin, and that children born out of wedlock would be found to have 'shameful' origins that would affect their childhood and future marriage prospects." Both countries follow Islamic doctrine in raising and caring for all abandoned children, but the lack of tolerance for unwed mothers is a powerful motivating force for abandonment.

Gender inequality and poverty play enormous roles in why parents abandon their children. In countries like Pakistan, the vast majority of abandoned babies are girls, because families who are under economic pressure judge that it’s only wise to raise boys who will later get jobs and support them. The intersection of poor families and favoring of male children means that female children are more at risk of abandonment. The issue of poverty also arises with babies with special needs. In China, almost every abandoned infant has a disability of some kind, according to a report from CNN, which can both attract social stigma and significantly burden parents without a support network or resources to care for a child with special needs. This is seen across the world — but the question of what people can do to help mitigate this spread remains.

What Can Be Done To Help

Many countries worldwide have the aim of reducing child abandonment. One policy, instituted in a Russian hospital in 2000, opted for attempting to help women breastfeed their newborns in an attempt to aid bonding and reduce the likelihood of abandonment. The initiative did work, but it presupposed that the women at risk were giving birth in a hospital in the first place.

One of the major methods used for helping abandoned babies and their mothers worldwide is the creation of a safe place to leave babies, so that they’re not at risk. In the United States, laws legislating these places are known as “safe haven” laws, and on the surface they seem like excellent ideas: shame-free, anonymous, safe environments that don’t ask questions and don’t endanger the child. But while they’re helpful, some people argue that they’re also not enough.

The bigger picture around infant abandonment is one about reproductive rights, sex education, and economic empowerment. Anti-abortion activists in the United States tend to celebrate the idea of “safe havens” because they’re an explicit alternative to having an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. It seems obvious, however, that more needs to be done to prevent an unwanted birth from happening in the first place, and having safe, legal abortion and contraception options available to all women has been a major historical step to helping the situation. In France, for example, the wide availability of contraception was linked to a dramatic drop in the rate of abandonment, down to one infant per 1000 births. Theorists like sociologist Laury Oaks, author of Giving Up Baby, argue strongly that the main way to prevent infants being abandoned is to give mothers more control over their reproductive lives.

Comprehensive legislation is also important. Since 2002, Austria has had an anonymous birth law on the books that allows women to give birth in hospital without giving any identifying information, and research has found that it's reduced both infanticide and the rate of babies being put in hatches. On the other side of the coin, though, South Korea has a law in place that forbids babies from being adopted overseas if their parents don't identify themselves, driving mothers who need anonymity (if they are escaping an abusive situation, for example) to abandon them in baby hatches instead. And in South Africa, anonymous child abandonment is criminalized and teenage mothers are legally unable to give up children for adoption until they turn 18.

Anonymity is a bit of a tough question. The United Nations doesn't like anonymous box or hatch abandonments being legal, because they believe that all children have the right to know their parents. Instead, they believe the key causes behind abandonment should be tackled first. Top on their list is tackling the poverty that creates conditions of child abandonment, and the specific gendered environment that means parents expect only sons to be able to support them. If a country persists in giving its wealth to men, families under pressure will only want sons, and the risks to female babies will heighten. Gender inequality and extreme poverty exist hand-in-hand, and fixing them is tricky, but lowering barriers for women to enter the workforce and providing decent childcare is often recognized as a good start.  

The best approaches, big organizations believe, take all of these ideas and put them together. The European Commission recommends that countries who want to prevent child abandonment give women support at all points, from day care to better mother-baby units in hospitals and parental hotlines, but also invest in family planning and helping 'high-risk' mothers. Child abandonment is the act of a mother out of options: Giving her as many options as possible, and empowering her to make informed choices about her own life, is the best way to make sure it stops.