Is there a right way to abandon a baby?

Controversial ... The Babyklappe initiative in Germany.
Controversial ... The Babyklappe initiative in Germany. Photo: www.babyklappe-vs.de, image posed by model

With the remarkable news of Baby 59 last month – the infant delivered in a toilet and flushed away by its mother in an act of incomprehensible desperation – China has once again come under the furious glare of those trying to both understand and condemn the country’s problem of unwanted children and option-less mothers.

Baby 59 became a poster-child for the disastrous potential consequences of China's family-planning policies. These policies have seen women go to extreme measures, or be subjected to extreme measures, in order to hide or terminate pregnancies or dispose of newborn babies.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a country that has the opposite population problem to China, controversial 'baby hatches' (Babyklappen) are the focus of renewed debate. Introduced in 2000 (although commonly used in Medieval times), baby hatches are small doors which can be opened from the outside of a building, allowing members of the public to place a baby on a heated bed inside. On the bed is a letter to whoever is depositing the baby, telling them what to do and who to contact if they change their mind, which they can do within a certain time frame. The hatch, once closed, can’t be opened again from the outside, and the mother is allowed to leave, unseen, her action entirely anonymous.

As soon as a baby is placed on the bed an alarm sounds, alerting carers who reach the baby within minutes. The baby is cared for by trained professionals until it is ultimately placed into the adoption system.

Around 100 baby hatches currently operate throughout Germany.  Debate arises cyclically as to the ethics of the system, the fact that it breaches the UN mandate that every child has a right to know their parents, and whether or not the hatches provide relief or encourage the problem.

Germany isn't alone in their use of baby hatches. Japan has been using them since 2007, and they also operate in the Czech Republic, Italy, Malaysia, Russia, Poland and Hungary. In the USA, 'Safe Haven' laws mean a mother can leave her child, if it is younger than 72 hours, at a safe haven, such as a hospital or fire or police station. Supporters of such measures say they remove the need for mothers to take extreme, fatal measures to dispose of their babies, and that they save lives. They also argue that saving the life of the child is more important than knowing who its parents are.

On the other hand, critics' arguments range from the child not being able to find its parents later in life, to the hatches being an easy way out, and something that will encourage irresponsible attitudes to pregnancy. There’s also the problem that total anonymity doesn't allow for the details of the full story, details which could be ethically compromising. 

In Australia, talk of baby hatches has occasionally arisen in the media, usually in the wake of a mother abandoning a child, but that talk has ultimately petered out, presumably as a result of the aforementioned problems. A notable case in 2010, in which a baby was abandoned in a shoe box in Melbourne, generated discussion, as did the case of Keli Lane, who in 2010 was convicted of murdering her two-day-old baby in 1996. In 2011 a bill was introduced into South Australian parliament which proposed the passing of a safe haven law, similar to that of the USA. Anonymous birth, meanwhile, remains illegal. 

And it is anonymous birth that has provided the most recent fuel for debate in Germany, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to push through legislation that allows mothers to deliver their babies in hospitals without registering. “The idea is to allow women to give birth without publicly revealing their identity, something about 130 German hospitals already practise, despite a law stipulating that midwives register the mother's name,” Times Live reported. As part of this new legislation, the mother's information would be kept on record for 16 years, giving the child the option of searching for its mother later in life if it so chooses. Should the legislation go through, it could potentially circumvent the need for the baby hatches. 

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In this loud, foggy, seemingly endless debate, one thing is clear. Mothers - and indeed fathers - use the baby hatches. The option of anonymously putting their baby in safe, professional hands because they don’t feel equipped as a parent, for a multitude of very real, very difficult reasons, is an option that’s been taken advantage of time and time again. German newspaper Spiegl reported last year that 278 children were found in such hatches between 2000 and May 2010.

Whether or not the anonymous birth option would be a more viable, effective solution than the baby hatches is something that remains to be seen. Regardless, the fact remains that the weight and relentlessness of this discussion in a country like Germany, which is witnessing a worrying decline in its population and birth rate, serves as a reminder that unwanted babies and desperate mothers aren’t just confined to countries where enormous populations regulate how big a family can be.

Unwanted babies and desperate mothers are found all over the world, and perhaps the discussion around Baby 59 should have been more firmly fixated on the options available, around the world, to the mothers who are desperate enough to abandon their newborns.

This article first appeared on Daily Life.

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