Baby Hatches Raise Controversy in Germany

From my column in The Washington Times Communities

WASHINGTON, July 31, 2012 – The ongoing debate over baby hatches in Germany has heated up again.  Baby hatches, known as babyklappe, are essentially boxes where unwanted babies can be left anonymously.  The hatches are temperature-controlled and have weight sensors that immediately alert staff that a baby has been surrendered.

They are equipped with inner locks that are triggered once an infant has been placed inside and can only be opened again through an inner door.

In many German cities and towns, a parent can anonymously leave an infant in a babyklappe and may return to claim the baby for eight weeks thereafter. Since the opening of the first baby hatch in Hamburg in 2000, the practice has given rise to a number of legal and ethical debates in Germany and beyond.

Baby hatches are modern versions of foundling wheels, which have been in use for centuries.  Foundling wheels were usually attached to the outer wall of a church or orphanage, where a baby could be placed in a vertical cylindrical compartment.  The cylinder could then be turned so that the child would be inside the building, while the mother rang a bell to alert those inside of the child’s presence. The first foundling wheel appeared by Papal decree in 1198 in Italy as a response to the high incidence of infanticide.

These ruote dei trovatelli were commonly used during the Middle Ages in Europe; in France they were known as tours d’abandon, and in Germany they were called drehladen.  They fell out of use in the 19th century, only to make a recent re-appearance in several countries.

The first contemporary German babyklappe was opened by the SterniPark Organization in Hamburg in April of 2000. Since then, a number of other social welfare organizations, private associations, and hospitals have opened and maintain approximately 80 baby hatches throughout the country. A handful of baby hatches are operated by private citizens out of their own homes.

Practices differ among the organizations operating baby hatches. Most view the hatches as a last resort. A majority of groups that operate babyklappe also offer counseling, pre- and post-natal care, as well as anonymous births.

Some organizations also provide temporary and emergency housing, vocational training, adoption services, and a vast array of other services designed to discourage abandonment.

When a baby is left in a hatch, the organization generally cares for the child for eight weeks, during which time the parents may come forward and reclaim the infant.  After eight weeks, the organization must contact the German Guardianship Tribunal, and the baby is usually put up for adoption.

In Germany, baby hatches operate in a legal gray area.  While it is illegal under German law to abandon a baby, there is a loophole that allows mothers to leave their babies in the care of third parties for up to eight weeks.

For the first eight weeks, most organizations that operate baby hatches act as third parties. After the eight weeks are up, however, the organization must contact the German Guardianship Tribunal.

Nederlands: Eigen foto van vondelingenluikje b...

Nederlands: Eigen foto van vondelingenluikje bij de Ospedale Santo Spirito in Sassia te Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this year, the German Youth Institute (DJI) released a study recommending that the government address the issue of baby hatches and provide clear legal guidance. German Family Minister, Kristina Schröder, has discussed the issue, but the Ministry has yet to produce a legislative initiative that would spell out the legality of the practice.

Currently, in its latest position paper released earlier in July, the Family Ministry has refused to declare an outright ban on babyklappe, but has banned the opening of new baby hatches until the law is clarified.

German baby hatches raise several legal and ethical questions.  Does a child have the right to know who his or her biological parents are?  If one parent surrenders a child, what are the rights of the other parent? Do baby hatches create an “easy way out” for women and parents? Are some women so concerned about anonymity that they would otherwise abandon their infants in dangerous places or resort to infanticide?

Supporters of baby hatches argue that they save the lives of unwanted children born to drug-addicted mothers, mothers in abusive relationships, or mothers who simply cannot face the reality of having a child. Since abandoning a child is illegal in Germany, baby hatches may seem like the only available option for some parents.

Some women are so concerned with anonymity (perhaps due to an abusive husband or strict family) that but for baby hatches, they would abandon their children or resort to infanticide rather than reveal their identity. Supporters argue that denying women the total anonymity offered by the babyklappe would turn a small number of the most vulnerable women away.

Detractors argue that the impersonal way in which a woman can surrender a baby in a hatch prevents women in abusive relationships or addicted to drugs from seeking the help that they need. Others argue that baby hatches encourage at-risk women to have unsupervised, at-home births in order to maintain their anonymity.

Some of the strongest opponents claim that the availability and aggressive advertising of baby hatches creates a demand that would otherwise not exist.

The German DIJ study concluded that it is impossible to know exactly how many infants have been left in baby hatches in Germany since 2000 because a number of the organizations operating the hatches refused to answer DIJ questions.  According to the data that is available, DIJ determined that at least 278 infants were found in hatches between 2000 and 2010.   Unofficial approximations estimate that around 1,000 children have been left in hatches.

However, the study also found that the incidence of neonatal deaths and abandonment in Germany has not diminished since the introduction of the babyklappe.

So do I think my local clinic should open a baby hatch?  Not really, but…

First of all, unlike Germany, where abandoning an infant is illegal, the U.S. does not have baby hatches, but 49 states, the District of Columbia (DC), and Puerto Rico have enacted safe haven laws that allow parents to surrender infants at certain specific places.

Beginning with the first “Baby Moses Law,” passed in Texas in 1999, safe haven laws focus on protecting infants and guaranteeing anonymity and legal protection to the relinquishing parents.

Safe haven legislation varies by state.  While most states designate hospital and other health care providers as places where infants may be surrendered, others also include emergency care providers, police, and fire stations as safe havens.

In Puerto Rico and four other states, infants may also be relinquished in churches if the parent first determines that church staff is present at the time of surrender.

The allowed age of surrender also varies by state, ranging from 72 hours to 30 days.  The District’s safe haven law allows parents to surrender infants up to seven days old, Maryland’s law accepts infants up to ten days old, and Virginia allows children up to 14 days old.

Safe haven legislation gives women more options for surrendering their baby while still maintaining their anonymity and avoiding legal problems. Under the DC safe haven law, for example, a parent may leave the place of surrender at any time, and may not be pursued or persuaded to stay or give any personal information.  Safe haven laws make it legal for a parent to surrender an infant and may make the widespread use of baby hatches unnecessary.

However, an argument can be made for baby hatches, even in the US.

Last January a week-old baby girl was left on a North East DC doorstep at night, when temperatures were below freezing.  A neighbor found her before midnight, unconscious, naked, and wrapped in nothing but a towel.  Emergency services were called, but unfortunately the infant was pronounced dead a few hours later at a local hospital.

Even though DC has a safe haven law, it did not save this child.  Perhaps her mother was unaware of the law or was too afraid or ashamed to face another person while surrendering the infant.  Perhaps a heated, sensor-equipped baby hatch would have saved this baby and kept her warm while someone was alerted to her presence.

Perhaps it wouldn’t…

In any case, the debate over babyklappe is far from settled in Germany.  Some Germans vehemently defend the hatches, while others oppose them.  For now, no new hatches will open until the Family Ministry has spoken out on the matter.

Read more: Baby Hatches raise controversy in Germany | Washington Times Communities