Leaving an unwanted newborn in a baby hatch is a last resort for mothers who want to stay anonymous but make sure their child is taken care of. The German government is now debating other solutions.
Despite an ever-growing belly, the mother-to-be ignores the obvious fact that she is pregnant. Perhaps it's because a baby would be a disaster for her: maybe it is not her husband's child, money is tight already, or the timing is simply not right.
Difficult situations occur even in prosperous societies with a wide range of help-lines and outreach offers for families and pregnant women. "These pregnant women feel their situation is intolerable and they do not manage to find a solution before the birth," says Monika Kleine, manager of the Catholic Women's Welfare Services (SkF) in Cologne.
100 baby hatches in Germany
The babies are often born in secret, "in a basement, a bathroom or garden shed," says Kleine. "The mothers are filled with fear and all alone, without medical attention."
There are about 1,000 baby hatches in Germany, intended to stop women from abandoning or even killing their new-born babies. Since 2000, it's estimated that several hundred babies habe left anonymously in these safe havens.
In a difficult Cologne urban neighbourhood, the SkF runs Haus Adelheid, a mother-and-child center staffed round the clock. A path along the side of the building is protected from public view with a wall, and it leads straight to the city's only baby hatch, hidden from view: the "Moses" baby window.
The baby is laid on a lambskin behind a flap in the wall, in a heated space. "As soon as a baby is slid in, the alarm on my cell-phone rings," Katrin Lambrecht of SfK says. Like last year: "The alarm rings and your heart stands still," she says; she found a baby girl in the hatch.
Ethics Council critical
Over a period of 12 years, 19 babies have been dropped off at the Cologne hatch. Some mothers get in touch later, but most of the children dropped off at a hatch never find out who their parents are - it remains an empty space in their lives, says Kleine. That is why it is so important to support the children and their foster families, even offering a visit to the "Moses" window. Several children have visited, she adds, and it was very moving. "Some children just want to see the hatch; some even want to lie down in it."
To know nothing about your own family can burden a child's soul. In 1989, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled that everyone has a right to know their parentage. Three years ago, the German Ethics Council criticized anonymous baby hatches, calling on the government to find a legal solution for pregnant women in emergency situations. Neither the baby hatches nor anonymous births - possible in 130 German clinics - operate on a legal basis. Both are merely tolerated.
"The baby hatch is the worst possible thing you can offer a woman and child," says Monika Bradna of the German Youth Institute in Munich. She helped produce a major study on anonymous drop-off facilities for infants which found that there was a lack of uniform standards for baby hatches in Germany over such issues as when the authorities should be informed or when a baby should be given up for adoption. She complains that the organizations that run the hatches often do not know what has become of the babies. There are not even any statistics as to how many children have been given up.
While Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder does not want to abolish the baby boxes for the time being, she would like to see them become superfluous in the wake of a draft law on what's being called confidential birth, to be discussed at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday (13.02.2013). The law would allow women to have a baby anonymously in a hospital. Their personal data would be sealed in an envelope and stored in a central agency for 16 years - at which point the child would have the opportunity to find out the mother's identity.
Critics say mothers should be given a veto: children would only learn their mother's name if she agrees. But Monika Kleine says that is an unsatisfactory solution, since it gives legal security only to the mothers and disregards the children.
Legal confidential births might also open the floodgates to anonymous births, Kleine warns: "It is an invitation to take advantage of the law, so that a mother could bear a child in a sheltered environment - only to disappear afterwards." There's already a poverty tourism, especially from Eastern Europe, which might well be boosted by such legislation
No statistics on infanticide
Both Kleine and Bradna welcome the federal government's intention to take a closer look at the benefit of baby hatches. "We need standard regulations for all anonymous birth provisions, and that should include the quality of counseling," Bradna says. Tolerating baby hatches and anonymous births on the grounds that they save lives is not enough, she says: "We don't even know whether these offers actually help save lives."
There are in fact no official statistics. No one knows whether fewer babies have been abandoned or killed since the introduction of baby hatches in Germany. Possibly the offer even generates demand, in that it might be the existence of the provision which might give the idea of dropping off her baby to a mother who otherwise might have kept her baby or given it up for adoption.