Giving Up Baby

Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice

288 pages

3 halftones

June, 2015

ISBN: 9781479806362



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Laury Oaks is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

All books by Laury Oaks

“Baby safe haven” laws, which allow a parent to relinquish a newborn baby legally and anonymously at a specified institutional location—such as a hospital or fire station—were established in every state between 1999 and 2009. Promoted during a time of heated public debate over policies on abortion, sex education, teen pregnancy, adoption, welfare, immigrant reproduction, and child abuse, safe haven laws were passed by the majority of states with little contest. These laws were thought to offer a solution to the consequences of unwanted pregnancies: mothers would no longer be burdened with children they could not care for, and newborn babies would no longer be abandoned in dumpsters.

Yet while these laws are well meaning, they ignore the real problem: some women lack key social and economic supports that mothers need to raise children. Safe haven laws do little to help disadvantaged women. Instead, advocates of safe haven laws target teenagers, women of color, and poor women with safe haven information and see relinquishing custody of their newborns as an act of maternal love. Disadvantaged women are preemptively judged as “bad” mothers whose babies would be better off without them.

Laury Oaks argues that the labeling of certain kinds of women as potential “bad” mothers who should consider anonymously giving up their newborns for adoption into a “loving” home should best be understood as an issue of reproductive justice. Safe haven discourses promote narrow images of who deserves to be a mother and reflect restrictive views on how we should treat women experiencing unwanted pregnancy.


  • "A thoughtful and much-needed reproductive justice analysis of 'safe haven' laws and how they are usedand misusedin whose interests, and at whose cost."

    —Barbara Katz Rothman, City University of New York

  • "Oaks shows us once again what a sharp feminist eye can reveal when trained on a decent-sounding but ill-considered social policy. Systematically and persuasively, she demonstrates how baby safe haven laws reinforce conservative anti-abortion and pro-adoption policies in our fetal-obsessed society. Her lucid, riveting account keeps the reproductive justice framework vividly at the center of analysis, illuminating how the laws unwittingly reinforce harmful stereotypes about who makes a good (or bad) mother. Boldly, bravely, and with a keen eye for detail, Oaks keeps us focused on the reforms we need to make to allow all parents to raise children with dignity and equality. She offers a real role model of feminist scholarship."

    —Lynn Morgan, author of Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos

  • “[Oaks] demonstrates quite clearly and powerfully that American safe haven policies represent a tangle of cultural, political, legal, and religious ideas and forces about class, age, gender, motherhood, and race.”

    Anthropology Review Quarterly

  • "Oaks skillfully navigates the complex web of issues, from class politics to notions of maternal love, that intersect with safe haven laws."

    Pacific Standard

  • “The author skillfully portrays the contradictions and hypocrisies of the SHL movement.  She documents supporters’ often-vehement opposition to abortion and sex education, their hostility to formal adoption, and their refusal to acknowledge the institutional and socioeconomic reasons why millions of US families live in poverty."


  • “Oak’s analysis intersects with the larger story of adoption in the United States—particularly its commodification, even as infants are understood as ‘priceless.’  She shows evocatively that the supply-and-demand exigencies of adoption dovetail with imaginaries of good and bad mothers, as they do with constructions of maternal love.”

    American Anthropologist

  •  “Giving Up Baby serves as a firm foundation for future inquiry into the politics, both formal and informal, of safe haven laws through the lens of reproductive justice. Oak’s skillful consolidation of research into streamlined and easy-to-understand chapters effectively illustrates the complex and intertwined nature of politics, culture, race, class, and gender in these laws.”

    —, Feminist Collections

  • “[Oaks] Provides a feminist analysis of the social politics of legal infant abandonment in advocacy and media discourses surrounding safe haven laws.”

    Journal of Economic Literature