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It’s a hard-knock life for...?

Why we're surprised when babies are abandoned

Bob Taratino

For a few days in Toronto in the winter of 2008, it was impossible to avoid the plaintive dark eyes and plump cheeks of the baby we would come to know as Angelica-Leslie. Strangers had to provide the name because no one seemed to know who she was or where she had come from. The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto named her for her angelic disposition and the address of the parking garage where she had been found. The little girl who had been discovered lying face down in a stairwell was suddenly everywhere. She led the evening newscasts, prompted front-page coverage in all the local papers and was even, perhaps inevitably, accorded her own Facebook group.

During the same period, Canadian newspapers were also covering a very different kind of story: 20 years, almost to the day, before Angelica-Leslie was abandoned, the Supreme Court of Canada released the Morgentaler decision. This momentous judgment declared that the Criminal Code provision that made abortion illegal violated the Charter of Rights because it constituted a “profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of security of the person.”

No one said so last winter, but there is a powerful relationship between these two stories.

An abandoned baby jars current sensibilities precisely because it happens so rarely. It is illustrative of the revolution in access to contraception and abortion in Canada that is the most noticeable legacy of Morgentaler. Angelica-Leslie received so much media attention because our society is relatively unfamiliar with abandoned babies—a rarity driven by the fact that women are no longer forced to carry to term a child who was unplanned or for whom they are unable to care.

Abandoned babies were, for many years, quite common in Canada. Some women were forced to (sometimes surreptitiously) carry babies to term and then either abandon them or, when institutions finally developed to address the need, give them up for adoption. In the 1860s, when the population of Toronto had not yet crested 60,000, six dead babies were found on average per year. During a 70-year period in the 19th century, one religious order in Montreal cared for more than 15,000 abandoned children.

For the first half of the 1900s, Canada prosecuted an average of 10 women per year for the crime of concealing a birth (often the mechanism used for punishing a woman who abandoned a baby to the elements). By the end of the 20th century, the average number of infants who died annually from exposure due to abanonment shrunk to only a handful across the entire country, amid a far larger population. Where Canadian orphanages were once overflowing with unwanted children, their numbers have dropped precipitously. The “frequently asked questions” page at the AdoptOntario website includes the query “Why are there so few babies to adopt?”

This is correlation, not causation, and we should be careful of being too reductive. A relaxation of the social constrictions on single-mother families and the buttressing efforts of the welfare state have changed the circumstances in which it remains feasible for a mother to care for her children. Infant mortality rates have collapsed over the last century, so as a society we feel the deaths of children more acutely. And Morgentaler, like Roe v. Wade, was not a single legal decision made in isolation, but the culmination of decades of efforts to change reproductive law. But it is undeniable that the approximately 100,000 induced abortions performed in Canada every year means a significant reduction in the number of children who might otherwise be abandoned.

While previous generations never endorsed child abandonment, they did regard it as sadly routine. The seeming callousness with which children were abandoned (whether to the elements or on the doorsteps of charitable institutions) was partly a function of their ubiquity—sheer fecundity and limited contraception made children plentiful, and sometimes expendable. Today, that dynamic is reversed: as the availability of babies has decreased, their value has increased.

Now interested adoptive parents are forced to search other countries for prospects. While there are hundreds of Canadianborn children placed with adoptive parents every year, the number of foreign-born children adopted by Canadian families is in the thousands. In her way, Angelica-Leslie may be part of that trend: police, unable to locate her birth mother, believe she may have been born in the United States.


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