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The family name

November 27, 2009

Germany's ethics commitee says that women should not be able to give birth anonymously. A new system of confidentiality could be on its way.

Picture of a newborn, wrapped up, being touched on the cheek
Around 500 newborns have been given up for adoption since 1999Image: AP

Germany looks likely to put an end to a system that allows mothers to have babies in hospital and leave them behind without giving their names.

Plans to change hospital rules come in light of a vote by Germany's National Ethics Council, which declared that anonymous births and "baby hatches" were unlawful.

It has been possible to give up babies without providing one's name since the 1999s, with around 130 hospitals in Germany offering anonymous births. In addition, there are around 80 baby hatches, warm incubators often in the walls of hospitals, where women can leave babies anonymously who are then put up for adoption.

Advocates of the system say it helps women who might otherwise have their babies alone and could stop newborns from being harmed or killed. Baby flaps, they say, allow women to give up children without leaving them on cold hospital doorsteps.

Confidentiality option

In the wake of the ethics council's decision that the services are unlawful, members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats said they would push for new legislation to allow confidentiality in births, where details could be kept by the state if the parents were not registered.

"We want to create a law for confidential birth and extend the advice for pregnant women in need," senior Christian Democrat Ingrid Steinbach told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

In the emotionally-charged ethics council debate, those in favor of anonymous services said that there was no better alternative.

Safe, protected space

Picture of a metal baby hatch, with instructions
Baby hatches are one way that babies are given up anonymouslyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The central committee of Germany's Catholics said that anonymous births in hospitals saved the lives of children and offered mothers safety and a protected space for the delivery.

"In many cases, the mother subsequently decides in favor of spending her life with her child," said committee president Alois Glueck.

But most of the 26-person ethics committee, which includes scientists and legal experts and church leaders, did not agree. Some felt that the services created more problems than they solved and even encouraged mothers to abandon their offspring.

"Clearly, this option creates a demand that was not there before," said committee member Ulrike Riedel.

Better information

Instead, the council said that women in need should be better informed of the help available to them. It recommended the introduction of a 24-hour hotline for affected women and placements in homes for mothers and children.

The council said that the legality of anonymous adoption was problematic legally because it damages the rights of children to know where they come from.

More than 500 babies have been given up for adoption anonymously in hospitals or at baby hatches, mainly maintained by church groups, since 1999. It is not yet clear how any changes to the law might affect baby hatches.

Editor: Nancy Isenson