Cover Story

'This is a life'

Issue: "Dumpsters or hospitals?," June 24, 2000

She looked put out," said emergency-room manager Teri Little, recalling the teenage girl who stood last Christmas eve in the corridors of Springhill Memorial Hospital in Mobile, Ala., with a small baby in her arms. "Like someone who has been standing too long in the cashier line with their arms full of groceries."

"Can you offer me any medical information?" asked Ms. Little, as the girl handed her a tiny baby boy with his umbilical cord still attached. "No," she responded curtly. "Is that it?" The girl walked out the door and never returned; "Baby Nick" was adopted in February.

The process is quick at A Secret Safe Place for Newborns, a nonprofit Mobile program that, in an effort to save abandoned babies, allows a woman to leave her newborn at the hospital with no questions asked and no fear of prosecution as long as the baby is unharmed.

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Though resolutely in favor of Alabama's Safe Babies program, Ms. Little admits that she has mixed feelings when women walk through the doors and leave their babies behind. "It's like, 'Oh, thank God you are doing the right thing,' and then in the same breath, you want to go, 'How could you do that?'" she said.

Her sentiments are echoed by others in the community who wonder whether this program is a hopeful sign of society's renewed respect for life or a tragic symptom of cultural decline. "You want to believe that some mothers out there will take their child to the hospital as opposed to the Dumpster, but you also have to wonder if it doesn't encourage more irresponsibility," said Dianna Lightfoot, chairman of the state's human resources board in Jefferson County.

The Safe Place program is a powerful example of one person's ability to inspire a community. Jodi Brooks, a 29-year-old television reporter, says she grew tired of covering stories about dead babies in Dumpsters. So she pitched an idea to county officials: What if local hospitals provided a "safe place" for abandoned newborns, the district attorney agreed not to prosecute the mothers who left them there, and the state took custody of the children and later placed them for adoption?

Unlike similar plans that languished in state legislatures across the nation, Ms. Brooks's idea drew a firestorm of support, and Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman traveled to Mobile this summer to sign the program into law.

Ads on mobile buses and prime-time television, along with 100,000 brochures distributed in high schools, Girl Scout meetings, and public restrooms, now proclaim: "You've hidden your pregnancy. You couldn't let anyone know. Now you have a baby. DON'T PANIC!" To date, authorities credit the program with saving five babies.

Jodi Brooks told WORLD of her emotions after holding a Safe Place baby: "This isn't a news story any more. It's not a statistic. It isn't a headline. This is a life."

But Michael Robertson of the Mobile Save a Life crisis pregnancy center wants more: "It would have been a great platform for Jodi to take this one step further and say, 'If you shouldn't put it in the Dumpster one day after it's born, then maybe you shouldn't put it in the Dumpster one day before.'" He says that past efforts to broadcast CPC ads with pro-life themes met resistance from the same television stations now promoting the Safe Place program.

Ms. Brooks, however says Safe Place is "past abortion, it's past abstinence, it's past protection. We are dealing with a live emergency, an unwanted newborn baby."

Safe Place does seem to be saving lives, and for those in the trenches, public-policy debates pale next to the faces of newborns. Said Springhill hospital's Ms. Little: "I would rather be handed a baby with a chance at a new beginning than a dead one."

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