ETHICS MADE REAL

Gordon Self

May 27, 2013

Earlier this month, Covenant Health opened two newborn safe havens in Edmonton at the Misericordia and Grey Nuns Community Hospitals. They are the first newborn safe havens in Alberta, intended to augment the existing safety net and to help prevent unsafe abandonment that threatens the life, dignity and respect owed to vulnerable newborns.

Shortly after the first angel cradle in Canada was opened at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver three years ago, a colleague asked me if we should consider a similar option here. We pulled together a number of our obstetricians, social work staff and other clinicians who related their experience caring for women who had abandoned their newborns in unsafe conditions, some incidents resulting in tragic outcomes.

We considered the rare but clinically documented phenomenon of hidden pregnancies and our experience that such cases are not related to any one particular social-economic background - a denial that sometimes includes the women's labour itself and the baby who is left behind.

We looked at our mission and values as a Catholic organization, and our call to respond to unmet needs and providing compassionate care to those most vulnerable. We examined the Catholic history of the first safe havens, known as foundling wheels, in churches and orphanages dating back to the late 12th century.

We noted the reappearance of baby boxes in Europe, Asia and elsewhere during the past couple decades, and the establishment of state safe haven legislation or Baby Moses laws across the U.S.

Finally, as all this conversation and research was occurring, we received a letter from the Catholic Women's League independently asking us to consider a safe haven in Edmonton, seeming to underscore that we were being prompted to do something innovative.

But innovative proposals such as this must be thoughtfully and carefully discerned. It was thus important we consulted our key partners in health, social services, government and the police to ensure all the clinical, legal, practical, ethical and moral questions were adequately addressed.

For example, Covenant Health unequivocally affirms the right of every child to know his or her parental history, as declared by the World Health Organization. We also acknowledge the rights of fathers and the critical role community social service agencies play in supporting people at risk, and helping to promote strong families and healthy parenting.

These are fundamental rights and services which we stand by. We also do not condone a throw-away society in which a human being can be casually discarded, safely or otherwise. A child's healthy physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual development requires they are unconditionally loved and known.

But the reality is that unsafe abandonment still occurs in western society despite a comprehensive array of health and social services, and there is still so much we do not know about why this occurs.

DESPERATION

In a moment of desperation, a parent may leave their newborn, perhaps feeling they have no other option, or when they perceive a barrier in accessing the various social services available to them. In these cases, the angel cradle provides a safe, last resort option where a newborn can be left anonymously.

As long as the newborn is left safely, with no evidence of having been harmed, we are not obligated to report or do the work ourselves to connect the baby with the mother, even if the mother presents minutes or hours later to our emergency department for her own care needs.

However, we recognize that legislation requires government agencies to try to determine the parent's identity. In supporting that ultimate goal, our hope is that by providing another option to a vulnerable parent in a moment of desperation there is at least a chance to reconnect baby with parents later. Without such an option in some situations, a newborn may face an untimely demise.

NATIONAL ATTENTION

What has been amazing is the focus of national public attention newborn safe havens have generated. They have galvanized the moral imagination of so many, serving as a symbol for anyone at risk of abandonment in society.

The angel cradle reminds us that every human being is a worthy member of society, deserving of support. Unfortunately, there are still many in society who fall through the cracks, whose needs are not recognized or adequately met.

While abandonment is arguably the greatest social issue of our times, the angel cradle symbolizes what is possible in finding equally creative and compassionate solutions to ensure every human being is a welcome and treasured member of the community.

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at mes@covenanthealth.ca.)