The explanation for discarded babies

December 08, 1996|By Elise Armacost

THOSE TWO New Jersey college freshmen who threw their newborn baby in a Dumpster a few weeks ago, perhaps after crushing its skull, made me think of another teen-ager and another discarded baby. For all their shared awfulness, the two cases evoke such different emotions, one must ponder why.

Michelle Savage never made the pages of Time and Newsweek. doubt that many here in the Baltimore area ever heard of her. Like many young parents guilty of crimes against the just-born, she was poor, a resident of subsidized housing near Fort Meade. She was 18 when she gave birth, alone, in an upstairs bedroom and threw the baby out the window. The baby survived, but with permanent damage. Michelle is serving an eight-year jail term.

The story came and went. A few who paid attention may have murmured, ''How awful,'' then gone about their business. These were troubles from a different world, where tragedy and misbehavior are expected.

I wrote about Michelle after she was sentenced last year to say that her sentence was just -- that our society expects serious crimes to be punished with time in jail, but that eight years was long enough in this case. The circumstances were terribly sad:

A nice, conscientious but not especially bright girl growing up in a community beset with problems most of us can't imagine. A girl who somehow knew teen-age pregnancy was a bad thing and took pride in avoiding it; who, when she got pregnant by her first boyfriend, was so ashamed she didn't tell anyone -- not for fear of the stigma, for there was none where she came from -- but because she couldn't face the truth herself. In court she cried bitterly, tears of real remorse.

Revolting and pitiful

I found what she did revolting; I found her pitiful, deserving of a chance for redemption.

I thought of all this as the sordid story of Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson Jr. unfolded. But a similar mixture of emotions refused to materialize. The revulsion was there, all right, but nothing resembling pity or understanding.

Why? Just like Ms. Grossberg and Mr. Peterson, Michelle had a full nine months to think about what was happening, to come up with some plan for dealing with an unwanted baby, even one as crude as leaving it on a church doorstep. They surely were no less afraid than she. Indeed, they felt a fear she did not, for teen-age pregnancy still carries painful repercussions in the affluent, suburban world that is -- was -- theirs.

For a while it occurred to me that there might be some sort of subconscious reverse discrimination going on here, that some of us may feel more harshly toward Ms. Grossberg and Mr. Peterson because they are affluent kids who had the best of everything. Was that why liberal columnists called them evil, even before they have been convicted of anything?

Conservatives actually were more sympathetic, blaming the teen-agers' actions on confusion about the value of a newborn's life in a society that permits abortions, including some late-term ones. The case does raise discomforting questions about the difference between a third-trimester abortion and the killing of a newborn, but I doubt these young people even subconsciously considered these ethical distinctions.

If there is an explanation, it is that Ms. Grossberg and Mr. Peterson are worst-case examples of a growing lack of morality among suburban middle- and upper-class American children. A recent survey by private and public children's advocates in the Baltimore area confirmed what police and educators have been saying for some time: that suburban kids are increasingly disrespectful of authority, aggressive, insensitive to the rights and feelings of others, unable to distinguish right and wrong, selfish.

This trend has manifested itself locally in a marked, rapid rise in juvenile crime and school suspensions. It defies accepted socio-economic assumptions. One Howard County educator recently noted that the more privileged kids are often the worst.

Ms. Grossberg's and Mr. Peterson's background shatters the delusion that morality is a natural by-product of good neighborhoods, good schools and giving children everything their parents never had. That is why their story is important, and why they, and not the Michelles of the world, find their faces splashed ignominiously across the country.

It is not, however, why pathos for these two is impossible. Michelle Savage's crime was unplanned and monumentally stupid, a primal response to blind panic. The Grossberg-Peterson case shows signs of cold calculation -- the trash bags brought to the motel room where they chose to give birth, the hiding of the corpse in the trash bin.

The former can sometimes be forgiven. Not the latter.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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