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Indiana is installing more baby boxes, where newborns can be anonymously surrendered

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As more states pass abortion bans, another option for those who give birth after an unwanted pregnancy is growing. Built into the side of fire stations or hospitals, baby boxes allow infants to be surrendered anonymously. From member station WFYI, Jill Sheridan reports on how Indiana leads the baby box effort.

JILL SHERIDAN, BYLINE: It was on a trip to South Africa in a small church where Monica Kelsey first encountered a baby box.

MONICA KELSEY: I had never seen anything like this before. And so on the flight back from Cape Town, South Africa, on a Delta napkin, I hand drew my version of the baby box.

SHERIDAN: The idea of a box where a baby could be safely and anonymously surrendered is centuries old. Kelsey opened the first U.S. box in the small town of Woodburn, Ind., in 2016. Now there are 113 boxes across the country, 86 of them in Indiana. Today's boxes are temperature controlled, alarm activated, safety incubators installed in the side of firehouses or hospitals.

KELSEY: I think we all can agree that a baby box that calls 911 on its own is a better option than a dumpster. And so getting people to wrap their heads around that fact has been a struggle.

SHERIDAN: Kelsey first faced opposition from Indiana's Department of Child Services. The then-director said there was, quote, "no evidence to suggest the use of baby boxes as a safe, prudent way to surrender a child." Kelsey, a firefighter who was also abandoned as a baby, persisted. In 2017, the state's Safe Haven Law was amended to include baby boxes. State lawmakers are currently writing Indiana's abortion ban that will likely include exceptions for rape, incest and in cases of mother's health. Still, the demand for baby boxes will likely grow as more women find themselves with fewer choices in the event of an unwanted pregnancy.

Santa Clara University law professor Michelle Oberman studies legal and ethical issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood. She's concerned about mothers not knowing the boxes exist.

MICHELLE OBERMAN: It's really simple from a policy matter. It doesn't require you to face hard questions about what we owe people most impacted by abortion bans.

SHERIDAN: Oberman says a majority of women who receive abortions are below the poverty line. Indiana's Safe Haven Law has been on the books since 2000, but like many states, it has done little to advertise. But the word is spreading about Safe Haven Baby Boxes. There are plans for dozens more boxes across six states, including Ohio, Florida and New Mexico. Many are funded privately through church donations. The city of Carmel opened its box in 2017, and Fire Chief David Haboush views it as another door to the firehouse.

DAVID HABOUSH: Through this additional doorway into the fire station for them to drop the baby off than for us to go out and search for a missing baby or - and we can fill in the blank on many horrific things that have happened prior to the Safe Haven Program here in the state of Indiana.

SHERIDAN: Baby boxes have safely accepted 21 healthy infants. In Indiana, the Carmel station alone has had three in the past four months. For Chief Haboush, the issue is simple.

HABOUSH: This is an opportunity for us to take care of another human being. And it will be exciting to see, if the families allow us, what place in history these people, these human beings that are be entrusted to the firefighters, to see where they end up.

SHERIDAN: Indiana's Safe Haven Law allows anyone to safely surrender their baby within 30 days of birth.

For NPR News, I'm Jill Sheridan in Indianapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jill Sheridan