A traditional practice rooted in the Foundling Wheel of the Middle Ages, where children could be safely and anonymously handed in to the church has manifested in modernity with the instalment of ‘baby hatches’. The trend has spread all around the globe, with Japan recently announcing plans to install its second in Mana Josan-in, a birth centre in Kobe.
Baby hatches provide mothers living in poverty or otherwise desperate circumstances a judgement-free opportunity to place infants in the safe hands of social workers. These organisations are normally run by churches, hospitals or social care centres.
Japan’s Stork’s Cradle baby hatch is installed in Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto, where over 125 babies have already been rescued since its opening in 2007. A sensor in the mattress of the hatch alerts carers immediately of a new arrival to ensure immediate action is taken.
South Africa’s equivalent, the Door of Hope, has been running since 1999. The children’s mission was begun by a local church in response to a spike in the number of abandoned babies in the area. By destigmatising the often desperate situations leading to abandonment, babies have a better chance of survival. Some are adopted, however some grow up in South Africa’s care system.
Similar organisations around the globe have installed such baby hatches, including Germany’s Babyklappe, of which there are over 100, while over 300 are run by the Edhi Foundation in Pakistan.
However, a lot of controversy surrounds the topic. The vast majority of infants handed in to the Stork’s Cradle have been newborns, and some have argued that as mothers are in such a vulnerable state so early on, the baby hatches may encourage abandonment by capable mothers, rather than providing a very last resort as they are intended.
It has also been suggested that the hatches are enabling unwilling fathers of babies or controlling families to hand infants in to the baby hatch without the consent of the mother. As the process is anonymous, there is little chance of these mothers ever locating the child.
Of course, this means that the baby hatches are a legal grey area. Though the Japanese state declared in 2007 that the baby hatches were “not outright illegal”, there is no way of confirming whether each case of abandonment is in adherence to the philosophy of the Stork’s Cradle – to provide a safe out to parents in a desperate situation as a last resort. This lack of control over the infants being handed in and whether those who are giving them up have the legal right to do so means that legality is likely to always be an issue.
Indeed, public fears pre-empting the opening of the Stork’s Cradle in 2007 were exacerbated when the first child to be abandoned was a boy of four by a man presumed to be his father. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the chief cabinet secretary, said that the abandonment of a child at such an advanced age was ‘regrettable’, but nothing was really done to prevent this happening again. Moreover, a mother was arrested in 2014 after leaving a dead baby in the Stork’s Cradle. As these cases highlight, there is a lot of moral incongruity surrounding the scheme. They have only served to heighten fears that the baby hatches are encouraging abandonment and mistreatment of infants who might otherwise have remained with their parents.
As is the case with abortion and contraception, the concept of a parent rejecting a child is a subject of debate, one which is not likely to ever be settled. But perhaps it is possible to overlook the small number of negative cases in light of the fact that baby hatches have probably saved the lives of countless infants who may otherwise have been abandoned on the streets, an experience they may not have survived.
Image: Paula Stefanowska