Is there a right way to abandon a baby?

A picture taken on May 21, 2013 shows a "Babyklappe" (baby hatch) at the St Joseph hospital in Berlin Tempelhof. ...

A picture taken on May 21, 2013 shows a "Babyklappe" (baby hatch) at the St Joseph hospital in Berlin Tempelhof. Germany's "baby hatches", where women can safely leave their unwanted newborn, have come under fire as the government pushes a new law to guarantee a child the right to eventually know its mother's identity. Photo: Getty images

With the remarkable news of Baby 59 last month, an infant delivered in a toilet and flushed away by its mother in an act of incomprehensible desperation, China once again came under the furious glare of social media and editorials trying to both simultaneously understand and condemn the problem the country faces of unwanted children and option-less mothers. Baby 59 became a poster-child for the disastrous potential consequences of China's family-planning policies, policies that have seen women go to extreme measures, or indeed be subjected to extreme measures, in order to hide or terminate pregnancies or dispose of newborn babies.

 Soon after Baby 59 made headlines, in another part of the world that is having precisely the opposite population problems to China, Germany, an ongoing debate has been re-ignited regarding the controversial 'baby hatches' (Babyklappen). Introduced in 2000 - although commonly used in Medieval times - baby hatches are small doors which can be opened from the outside onto a heated bed in which the baby can be placed. 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. As soon as a baby is placed in the bed, an alarm sounds alerting carers who reach the baby within minutes. The hatch, once closed, cannot be opened again from the outside and the mother is allowed to leave, unseen, her action entirely anonymous. The baby is cared for by trained professionals until it is ultimately placed into the adoption system. Around one hundred baby hatches currently operate throughout the country with debate arising cyclically as to the ethics of the system, the fact it breaches the UN mandate that every child has a right to know their parents and whether or not the hatches provide relief to a problem or encourage it. 

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 fire or police station or a hospital. Supporters of the baby hatches say they remove the need for mothers to take extreme, fatal measures to dispose of their babies and they save lives. And that saving the life of the child is more important than knowing who its parents are. Critics' arguments range from the child not being able to find its parents later in life, to the hatches being an easy way out, 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 past, usually in the wake of a mother abandoning a child, but that talk has ultimately petered out for issues pertaining, presumably, to the inherent and aforementioned problems the countries with baby hatches routinely find themselves facing. A notable case back in 2010, in which a baby was abandoned in a shoe box in Melbourne, generated discussion regarding the options available for mothers and their unwanted babies, as did the case of Keli Lane, who was convicted in 2010 of murdering her two day old baby in 1996. In 2011 a bill was introduced into South Australian parliament - Children’s Protection (Lawful Surrender of Newborn Child) Amendment Bill 2011 - 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 is precisely what has provided the most recent fuel for debate in Germany. The reported German Chancellor Angela Merkel is looking 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.'' As part of this new legislation, the mother's information would be kept on record for sixteen 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. 

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 themselves do not feel equipped as a parent, for a multitude of very real, very difficult reasons, is an option taken advantage of time and time again.  And, furthermore, many return for their infants. German newspaper, Spiegl, reported last year that according to a study done, ''278 children were found in such hatches in Germany between 2000 and May 2010'' although precise statistics are difficult to obtain. 

Whether or not the passing and implementation of legislation permitting anonymous birth is 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 are not just confined to countries where enormous populations regulate the number of children family's are allowed to have. Indeed Baby 59 may well have not been a symptom of such regulations. Unwanted babies and desperate mothers are found all over the world and perhaps the discussion kicked off by Baby 59 should have been more firmly fixated on the options available - around the world - to mothers desperate enough to abandon their newborns.