Utah ‘safe haven’ expansion could allow newborns be given up 30 days after birth

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney meets state lawmakers at the Utah Capitol as Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, listens to the senator's response to her concerns over changes to the EPA during a brief meeting with the Democratic House Caucus on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

Seventeen years ago, a pregnant woman checked in to a Utah hospital under a false name.

The little that Sam Peterson knows is that she gave birth to him, received the medical care she needed and left him in the hospital’s care — immune from prosecution because of the state’s new safe haven law.

Peterson, now a high school senior who loves surfing and aspires to become a mechanical engineer, says he believes the law saved his life.

"It's a blessing to me. I was placed into my family where I truly belong," Peterson told Utah lawmakers Wednesday. "I have been given nothing but love and support from the day I arrived in my home."

The 17-year-old from Draper delivered his testimony beside Rep. Patrice Arent, the lawmaker who pushed for the safe haven law in 2001 and now is seeking to expand it.

The lawmaker remembered that when she first proposed the safe haven bill, she’d get anonymous calls in the middle of night from women who confessed that they’d left their baby in a dumpster.

“They said, ‘Please pass this law. I don’t want anyone to live with the guilt,’” the Millcreek Democrat testified.

State analysts have estimated that an additional four infants would be relinquished each year by lengthening the safe haven immunities as proposed by Arent’s bill, HB97, from 72 hours to 30 days. The lawmaker explained that some women aren’t even out of the hospital yet at 72 hours, and the effects of postpartum depression can far outlast that timeframe.

The bill would also set aside $50,000 in state funding for training and education about the safe harbor law, an amount that Rep. Robert Spendlove worried could endanger the legislation in a tight budget year.

“I don’t want this bill to not be able to ultimately pass because it’s got a $50,000 appropriations request,” Spendlove, R-Sandy, said, asking whether the policy change could be separated from the spending request.

Arent said she’d fight for the funding as an essential component of her proposal, arguing the safe haven protections are useless if people aren’t aware of them.

Spendlove also suggested extending the safe haven provisions even further — to a year after birth — so even more babies might be saved, but the committee ultimately advanced the bill without amending the timeframe.

The proposal drew an unusual slate of proponents, with socially conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka speaking in support of the Democratic lawmaker’s measure. One member of the House Health and Human Services Committee called it a “historic moment,” while another snapped a cellphone picture of Arent and Ruzicka sitting side-by-side.

Ruzicka said her group, the Utah Eagle Forum, advocates for “babies born and unborn” and referenced the estimate that the bill could affect four newborns each year.

“Isn’t that amazing? Four little babies," she said.

The legislation also received support from Pro-Life Utah and the Utah Hospital Association. With the committee’s support, Arent’s proposal now moves to the House floor for consideration.

In an interview after the hearing, Peterson’s father, Treavor Peterson, says his family is living proof that the safe haven law works. He and his wife had been trying to adopt for eight years before they got the phone call about Sam, he said.

“Our son is healthy, he’s happy,” Peterson said. “We’re healthy. We believe the birth mother, who we’re very grateful for ... we believe her life was better because she was able to make the decision that was better for her life.”