How our fear of infant abduction could be causing real harm.

The state of the universe.
Feb. 5 2010 9:36 AM

Invasion of the Baby-Snatchers

Our irrational fear of infant abduction could be causing real harm.

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That's not to say the growth of the baby-security industry hasn't had any positive effects. The numbers show that total infant abductions are down by one-third since 1995, with thefts from health care settings reduced by two-thirds. The quad-bands and baby LoJack work—but only in the sense that a virtually insignificant problem has now become ever-so-slightly less significant. Even before the advent of high-tech umbilical tags, the likelihood of your infant getting stolen was one in 300,000—and the chance of her being physically harmed during an abduction was at most one in 3 million. (More perspective: One in 3.8 million Americans is crushed to death by a nonvenomous reptile.)

So if baby-snatching was never much of a problem to begin with, why are health care administrators across the country so focused on its prevention? The history of the panic—with its abrupt beginning in the late 1980s and gradual inflation over the following decade—mirrors a broader shift in the medical industry. Hospitals now advertise their services directly to the public, and their efforts are directed, first and foremost, at the most valuable health care demographic: young, pregnant women.

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The idea that patients might be wooed with perks and gimmicks emerged in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of managed care. The size and scope of HMOs helped insurance companies squeeze lower rates from the providers. ("Cut your prices, or you're out of the network.") So the hospitals were forced into a more aggressive posture: They stayed in business by actively recruiting customers.

From the beginning, women of child-bearing age were central to the business plan. Maternity wards provided a steady source of revenue in uncertain times. But it wasn't the babies the industry was after so much as the moms. Studies showed that women were responsible for 60 to 80 percent of the health care decisions for their entire families. If you could get a young woman into your hospital when she was just starting a family, you'd have a shot at locking down four or five customers for life.

So began the "Maternity Wars." Birth centers across the country were renovated and ramped up to attract market share, and the maternity ward started to resemble a luxury hotel. Hospitals advertised single-occupancy rooms with flat-screen TVs, plush bathrobes, and deep Jacuzzi tubs. (The unspectacular New York City hospital where I was born in the 1970s now sports Italian glass tile, elegant sconces, and decorative mirrors.) Once all these perks were in place, enhanced infant security was a logical next step. Come for the lakeside views, the fresh-baked cookies, and the motion-activated surveillance cameras …

A competitive marketplace for moms has turned the baby-snatching panic into an expensive arms race: If Mercy West is using umbilical transponders, what kind of parent would risk delivering at Seattle Grace? Now we're seeing hospitals shell out for infant protection and identification systems with six-figure price tags. Those investments, along with the rest of the money that goes into birth center perks, shake out in higher insurance premiums. That's not the only source of increased medical spending: The inflated standards for infant safety may leave some institutions more vulnerable to baby-snatching lawsuits—and multimillion-dollar settlements—in those very rare cases when abductions do occur. According to risk-management expert Fay Rozovsky, some hospitals are buying liability insurance to hedge against this scenario.

The panic over baby-snatching carries a further emotional cost for young parents already dumbfounded by the living, breathing, gurgling creature that just entered their lives. Following the NCMEC guidelines, many hospitals are now stoking our more natural anxieties by warning parents against posting photos of their babies online or decorating their front yards with "signs, balloons, large floral wreaths, and other lawn ornaments." (These might "call attention to the presence of a new infant in the home.") Newspaper announcements are also discouraged, despite data showing that these have played a role in just 2 percent of all known infant abductions.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the baby-snatching panic is its potential for inciting violence. It turns out that heightened security at the hospital has pushed the snatchers toward other venues where they can find newborns. While infant abductions from health care settings have dropped by two-thirds since 1995, the number of attacks in other places—shopping malls, parking lots, people's houses—has risen by 13 percent. That's a danger in itself. Women who stake out hospital nurseries tend to grab a baby and run, like the snatcher at Fort Hood; the ones who end up inside a mother's home are more inclined toward confrontation. According to the NCMEC data, the risk of physical harm goes up by a factor of almost four.

Thus the case of Maria Gurrola, who was choked and stabbed in the neck and chest at her home in Tennessee in September after a woman posing as an immigration official tried to steal her 4-day-old son. And that of Andrea Curry-Demus, the Pittsburgh-area woman who was found guilty last week of murdering an expectant mother in her apartment after removing the victim's unborn child. (The baby survived and remains in good health.) America's most famous baby-snatching—of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr. in 1932—also took the form of a home invasion and ended with a murder.

These are awful, terrifying crimes, but a few grisly news reports needn't make us panic any more than we already have. Real-life infant abductions (and baby switches) are freak events, affecting an infinitesimal subset of the population. That doesn't mean we shouldn't make smart choices to minimize tiny risks. Footprinting and ID bracelets offer sensible and appropriate protection against unlikely mistakes. But a consumer-minded, zero-tolerance policy that pushes for high-tech alarm systems isn't saving any lives. The real problem here is the handful of baby-snatchers who will always live among us, desperate and insane. These women will find their opportunities, one way or another—and they won't be deterred by the "Cuddles with Kisses" system in the maternity ward. We have an obligation to keep babies and mothers safe, but the frenzy over infant abduction isn't helping.

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