Abandoning Babies Safely
What is a baby hatch? It is a device where people can bring babies, often as young as a newborn or a few days old, and leave them anonymously. They can also be called Baby Box, Baby Flap or Baby Cradle (German speaking countries, Korea), Life Cradle and Foundling Wheel (Italy), The Wheel (Sicily), Storks Cradle (Japan), Baby Post and Baby Safety Island (China), Jhoola (Pakistan), Mothers' Moses Basket (Belgium), Window of Life (Poland), Wheel for Exposed Ones (Brazil and Portugal), Hole in the Wall (South Africa), Angel’s Cradle (Canada), Cradle Baby (India) and Turning Cradle (Philippines).
The hatches are usually in churches, hospitals or social centres within the community and consist of a door or flap in an outside wall which opens onto a soft bed, heated or at least insulated. Sensors (or a ringing bell) quickly alert staff when a baby has been placed so that staff or volunteers can come and take care of the child.
A BabyBox in the Czech Republic
Baby hatches were common in the Middle Ages. From 1198 they were used in Italy when Pope Innocent 111 decreed that they be installed in homes for foundlings. He believed that placing unwanted infants saved many from death, usually drowning.
In Dublin, Ireland, the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse installed a foundling wheel in 1730, as this excerpt from the Minute Book of the Court of Governors of that year shows:
Hu (Boulter) Armach, Primate of All-Ireland, being in the chair, ordered that a turning-wheel, or conveniency for taking in children, be provided near the gate of the workhouse; that at any time, by day or by night, a child may be layd in it, to be taken in by the officers of the said house.
The foundling wheel in Dublin was taken out of use in 1826 when the Dublin hospital was closed because of the high death rate of children there. (1)
In July 1999, the first modern baby hatch was installed by Door of Hope Children's Mission at a small church in Johannesburg. Pastor Allen realised that a high number of newly born infants were abandoned, and believed that many desperate women may have acted differently if there had been an alternative. By 2013, the Door of Hope has received over 1300 babies. 148 have come through the hatch but also from hospitals, police or community members. In November 2000 the second modern baby hatch was installed in Hamburg, Germany. By 2010, 38 babies had been left in the baby hatch, 14 were later reclaimed by their mothers. (1)
Door of Hope Ministries in South Africa
Globally, there are approximately 20-25 countries with baby hatches includingCanada (3), Czech Republic (47), Germany (100), Italy (8), Poland (47), and Russia (10). USA-50 states have or are planning hatches. (1)
Reasons for Using Baby Hatches
These are complex and varied, and differ from country to country. They include: babies are abandoned as they are not born within a marriage, mothers are unable to cope, families want to abandon their infants but it is illegal, an alternative to female infanticide, men force women to abandon their infants.
What happens to the child?
In some countries, abandoning a child is against the law. In Hungary the law was changed so that leaving a baby in an official baby box was deemed to be a legal act amounting to consent to adoption, while abandoning a child anywhere else remains a crime.(2)
In Germany, babies are looked after for eight weeks during which the mother can return and claim her child without any legal repercussions. After eight weeks the child is put up for adoption, as according to German law, parents are allowed to leave their child in the charge of a third party for up to eight weeks. German hatches, which are often held up as a model for western countries, contain an inkpad and paper. The mother can take an imprint of the child’s foot to use as initial confirmation of its parenthood, which is followed by medical tests, in the event she reclaims the child (6).
In Japan, abandoning a baby is normally punished with up to five years in prison. However, placing an infant in a baby hatch does not count as abandonment, as the baby is under the hospital's protection.
In the United Kingdom there are no baby hatches, as they are illegal, and the law states that any mother who abandons a child less than two years of age is a criminal and can face up to five years' imprisonment. In practice, such prosecutions are extremely rare.
In Belgium abandoning babies is illegal, and the hatch operates in a legal vacuum under Belgian law. Even spreading the information is considered "Promoting child abandonment" and those responsible for the existence of the baby hatch remain punishable.
In Russia, baby hatches are installed in hospitals and the law treats babies found in baby boxes as foundlings. These kinds of babies are raised by the State while going through the legal process of adoption. (1)
Baby Hatch in Malaysia
The existence of baby hatches draws passionate debate! The arguments by those who oppose them include:
Laws: Laws vary across states and countries, and are often ambiguous. If placing a baby in a hatch is illegal, often the law is not enforced.
Identity: The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, a group of 18 international human rights experts based in Geneva, has expressed strong concerns about baby hatches, for several reasons. Firstly, they see them as a throwback to the past when the medieval church had "foundling wheels" - round windows through which unwanted babies could be passed. (3)
Secondly, their rapid increase. The Committee states that approximately 200 hatches have been installed across Europe in the past decade. Since 2000, more than 400 children have been abandoned in the hatches, with faith groups and right-wing politicians spearheading the revival in what the UNCRC sees as controversial practice.
Thirdly, hatches violate key parts of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which says children must be able to identify their parents and even if separated from them the state has a "duty to respect the child's right to maintain personal relations with his or her parent". (4)
Finally, that hatches may deprive the father of his right to find out what has happened to his child, although DNA testing of foundlings would seem to offer a solution.(1)
A strong argument is that the hatches encourage more mothers to abandon their children. (3) Critics say the boxes make it easier to abandon a child without exploring other options and do nothing to address poverty and other societal issues that contribute to unwanted babies. Some baby hatches in China have been so overwhelmed by abandonments in recent years that local officials have restricted their use or closed them.(4)
Several studies suggest that hatches may be used by unscrupulous fathers or controllers of prostitutes to put pressure on mothers to abandon her baby. This argument is supported by psychologist Kevin Browne of Nottingham University, who writes, "Studies in Hungary show that it's not necessarily mothers who place babies in these boxes, but relatives, pimps, step-fathers or fathers. Therefore, are these baby boxes upholding women's rights? Has the mother of that child consented to the baby being placed in the baby box?" (2)
The CRC committee agrees with this criticism: "There is growing evidence that it is frequently men or relatives abandoning the child, raising questions about the mother's whereabouts and whether she has consented to giving up her baby. “(6)
Individual and Family Support
Questions can be asked: Does a mother who surrenders her child need medical care, financial assistance, housing or counselling to ensure that she can make an informed decision regarding her infant and its future? (6) Does an anonymous drop allow the authorities to check whether there's a chance for the baby to remain with its family in the care of other relatives?
In some countries, such as Japan and Germany, there is evidence that baby hatches have been misused. Older children, those with disabilities and dead babies have been placed in them. (6). In Germany where the baby hatches have been used to abandon disabled children or babies already three months old. (1)
Baby hatch "Mother's Moses Cradle" in Belgium
Argument for Baby Hatches
The supporters of baby hatches have adopted the language of the pro-life lobby and claim the baby boxes "protect a child's right to life" and have saved "hundreds of newborns at risk from infanticide or dangerous abandonment".(5)
Dr Geoffrey Cundiff, regional head of Obstetrics and Gynecology (Canada), the ‘father’ of the modern-day baby hatch, states that “It’s important to note that the angel’s cradle isn’t meant to replace a strong social safety net. Instead, it is meant as a last resort for mothers and their babies in need. By offering anonymity, it offers a safer option than abandonment in the community.” (6)
In Scandinavia, Sari Essayah, from the centre-right Christian Democrats, points out that "two lesbians can get sperm anonymously and have children. They don't know the name of the donor. So what about the rights of the child in these circumstances? The UN have got it wrong here about baby boxes."(5)
In the United Kingdom around 50 babies are abandoned each year, with some dying of exposure before they are discovered. Campaigners are calling for the introduction of baby hatches. Alley Lofthouse, herself abandoned as an infant, suggests a separate entrance to a hospital or public building would provide a secure way for mothers to leave babies safely and in secret. And that no-one would be encouraged to abandon a child. (2)
In the USA, supporters continue to argue that the boxes can save lives. Hatches in hospitals, churches and fire stations would offer women who can’t face relinquishing a child in person a safe and anonymous alternative to abandonment or infanticide. Some states would require a change in law to allow parents to surrender newborns without fear of prosecution so long as the child hasn’t been harmed. Monica Kelsey, who was abandoned in a hospital at birth because she was conceived as the result of rape, is developing a new prototype. This would include a silent alarm that mothers could activate themselves by pushing a button. “We’re giving her the power to do what’s right,” Kelsey said. “We’re hoping that these girls know that once they push that button, their baby will be saved. She stressed that the boxes should be viewed as a “last resort” and would include a toll-free number staffed 24 hours a day by a counselor who would first ask the caller to surrender the baby to a person. The state health department would regulate the boxes. (4)
Recent discoveries of abandoned new born infants (one dead) has encouraged the Australian community to ask if baby hatches should be introduced. Australian politician Senator Polleybelieves it’s about making sure that every avenue is open for vulnerable women. “Yes, it is preferable for a child to know its parents,” she says. “But isn’t it more preferable for a child’s life to be saved?” Child abandonment is illegal in Australia so again legislative change would be needed to include exemptions where babies are dropped off at authorised baby hatches and to allow women a certain amount of time (3 months?) in which to reclaim their child without fear of prosecution. (6)
Senator Helen Polley is leading the fight to introduce baby hatches into Australia.
While there are strong arguments for and against baby hatches, many professionals are agreeing that baby hatches are not the complete answer to the problem of abandoned infants. Professor Karen Healy, national president of the AASW agrees that lives need to be saved, but doesn’t believe baby hatches are the answer.
“The claim that baby hatches save lives has not been demonstrated in most research studies,” she says. “Rates of infanticide have remained unchanged in Germany despite the extensive presence of baby hatches In the USA the rate of infanticide remains higher than in Australia. International research suggests women who abandon their babies are not in an emotional state to take the steps needed to locate a hatch and place their baby in it.” Prof Healy says baby hatches also are open to abuse and deprive children of fundamental human rights — a claim echoed by the United Nations.(6)
Preventing the tragedy of child abandonment lies in better involvement of community services for vulnerable women, with counseling, housing, mental health and pregnancy support. There also needs new policy direction to respond to the circumstances that lead to baby abandonment, which is about mothers who are in crisis and who need support to make decisions in their baby’s best interest.”() Andrew McCallum, Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies Australia says baby hatches should not be seen as the only solution to child abandonment. “It’s not an either/or proposition,” he says. “We need to encourage safe acts in the time of crisis, but we need to also think — how do we make services for vulnerable women more accessible?”(6)
The UNCRC has also urged countries to provide family planning, counselling and other support to address the root causes of abandonments. Maria Herczog, a member of the committee, says “In many countries we see people claiming that baby boxes prevent infanticide … there is no evidence for this.” Consequently the Committee is calling for a ban on baby hatches. (6)
However in disagreement, Bernd Posselt, Christian Social Union MEP for Munich, while acknowledging some problems, states that baby-boxes in Munich, organised by a monastery, have been positive. While it is essential to protect and to safeguard the life of children in extreme situations, all other problems can be solved with good will as long as the child is alive! It is not the decision of the UNCRC to make decisions to help born or unborn children. Manfred Weber, German MEP and vice-chairman of the European People's Party said the issue was one of competing "rights". A child is best raised within an intact family, but the safety of children is of higher priority than their desire to know their biological parents. (5)
So, do baby hatches encourage abandonment? Do they deprive a child of its basic rights as written in the Articles of the UNCRC? Or save infants that otherwise may die? Are they an immediate solution to a crisis but perhaps not the complete answer? Supporters and critics continue to disagree! I look forward to your thoughts and opinions!
- Ailes, Emma, Call for Baby Boxes for Abandoned New-Borns, Scotland, 12th April 2013
- UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (www.unicef.org)
- Indiana considering 'baby boxes' for safely surrendering infants:http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/27/indiana-baby-boxes-abandoned-newborn-babies
- Spread of 'baby boxes' in Europe alarms United Nations: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/randeepramesh