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Germany Debates Ethics of Anonymous Birth

Jane PaulickMay 12, 2006

The recent case of a woman charged with murdering eight of her babies has re-focused public attention on the thorny issue of "baby slots." Do they really prevent infanticide, and are they legal?

Saving lives with the Babyklappe, or baby slot, but at what cost?Image: picture-alliance/ ZB

According to the pro anonymous birth camp, the lives of eight babies might have been saved if their mother had been able to deposit her new-born infants in what's known in Germany as a "Babyklappe," a heated, incubator-like container usually built into a hospital wall.

Baby im See
"If it saves one life, it's worth it"Image: AP

In the same week the woman accused of killing her babies appeared in court in Frankfurt (Oder), the third Babyklappe in Saxony-Anhalt opened at Magdeburg's St. Marienstift hospital, which publicly admits it allows anonymous births.

"It happens more often than people think," said Heike Auricchio, a doctor at the clinic. "No one wants anonymous births to be anything other than an exception, but it is a necessary option for desperate women."

With 80 Babyklappen now spread across the nation, Germany has seen something of a baby slot boom since the Hamburg-based organization "Sternipark" unveiled the first in the country in 2000. In the first year alone, 13 babies were left in Sternipark's drop-off point, corroborating the project's belief that it offers an invaluable social service.

"If we manage to save one life this way, then it's worth it," said Sternipark's Kathrin Kliesow.

Giving women an easy way out

But while the advocates of Babyklappen say they prevent distraught women from leaving their babies to die in cellars or garbage cans, the critics say they offer women a convenient way of getting rid of an unwanted baby without having to jump through daunting bureaucratic hoops.

Not so, said Kliesow.

"Obviously, we'd rather talk to the women first and offer support," she said. "The Babyklappe should only ever be a last resort. But these women are having a baby, whatever happens, and it's first and foremost a question of helping them do so safely, and without risk of legal recrimination."

Auricchio also stressed that anonymous birth is only ever an eleventh-hour option.

Baby träumt
Many argue that the child's interests come firstImage: Illuscope

"We talk to women about their options and often we can persuade them to accept their child," she said. "Our first priority is the right to life and the child's well-being."

A criminal offence

Nonetheless, their defense -- well-meaning as it is -- also highlights the problems inherent in anonymous birth. Ethical matters such as child's right to know its parents and a parent's duty to a child aside, law experts agree the practice is actually illegal, but tolerated.

Ärzte bei der Arbeit im Operationssaal
The law turns a blind eye to anonymous birthImage: Bilderbox

"Every time a hospital carries out an anonymous birth, it's committing a criminal offence," said CDU member of parliament Beatrix Philipp, a vocal opponent of the Babyklappen. "By offering this service, you actually create a demand. A generation of foundlings is emerging in Germany, with state approval. It's time public prosecutors intervened to shut down these Babyklappen and ensure anonymous birth is not legitimized by hospitals."

Alfred Wolf, a professor of law at the Humboldt University who has written extensively on the issue, agreed.

"What it does is actually encourage women to break the law," he said. "We don't even need new laws, we need to enforce existing ones. This is a violation of public order. No matter how desperate these women might be, they always have legal options available to them."

Emotionally charged

Findelkind Station in Hamburg Babyklappe
The first baby drop station was in HamburgImage: AP

"Babyklappen are a pseudo-solution," Wolf said, stressing that they fail to address the social roots of the problem. "But overhauling our social system is time-consuming and expensive. And welfare offices are under a lot of political pressure."

The political pressure he refers to derives from the fact that although experts fear anonymous birth is a legally unsound procedure open to various forms of abuse, public support makes outlawing it a thorny issue.

"This is a very emotionally charged debate," Philipp said. "It would be very difficult to clamp down -- it would never be a popular decision."

Who is helping who?

Demand for children to adopt is risingImage: AP

Many suspect that too many people have a vested interest in anonymous birth.

When a child is born anonymously, the clinic is left with the costs of the birth. While it will usually foot the bill itself, or -- as in the case of the Catholic St Marienstift in Magdeburg -- can turn to religious organizations or charities such as Sternipark, there are other, more sinister options.

"An insurer will actually treat a couple adopting as the biological parents if they take a child born anonymously immediately rather than waiting the statutory eight weeks," Wolf said. "This can only be an advantage to international child trafficking. People cannot believe this is happening in Germany, but it is."