UN condemns ‘baby boxes’ for unwanted newborns

Abandoned and orphaned children on the steps of St Paul’s in 1916 © Getty Images

All over Europe, specially-designed deposit boxes have been installed – for desperate women to abandon unwanted babies. The UN has condemned the scheme – but could it be a good idea?

In the outskirts of Prague, on the wall of a dilapidated medical clinic, is a small, rectangular box. It is shaded with trees and in a quiet spot. Passers-by can easily open it and peer into the small space inside.

This understated hatch is not designed to collect parcels, or charitable donations of old books and clothes. It is a drop-off point for unwanted babies.

In the last ten years, 200 of these baby boxes have been installed in Europe, and over 400 babies have been left in the cushioned incubators. When an infant is placed inside, high-tech sensors set off an alarm and carers from social services leap into action. They take just a few minutes to arrive, but that is enough time for the baby’s mother to vanish. Totally anonymous, she will remain a mystery to her child forever.

Who could give up a newborn without a word? Many are desperate women, who feel unable to care for a baby. They may be teenagers, or illegal immigrants, and many live in dire poverty. In this depressingly common scenario, a safe baby box is not always available. An estimated 400 babies are abandoned in Italy’s bins, alleys or roadsides each year – and many do not survive.

Women have made the secret journey to the baby box for centuries. As far back as medieval times, desperate mothers would place newborns on ‘foundling wheels’ next to nunneries or orphanages. Back then, having a baby out of wedlock meant unendurable shame: with no support, many mothers had no choice but to give their children up for a better life.

After 1900, leaving children on the steps of institutions fell out of fashion. But horror at the high numbers of abandoned babies brought the foundling wheel back to the modern world – and in the countries like Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, there are plans to fit even more.

This week, however, the United Nations condemned this well-meaning solution. A team of human rights experts have said it denies children a fundamental right – knowing their parents, and where they come from. Rather than providing neonatal dumping grounds, they say, governments should invest in more family planning, counselling and support for all mothers.

Holding the baby?

Many people agree with the UN experts. Silently dumping a child is a terrible thing, for everyone involved. If it is easy and safe, it will become more acceptable. The baby box will only make these abandonments, and the suffering they bring, more common.

But without a safe, warm place, what would happen to abandoned children? Many, it seems, would be left in the cold and wet; some, doubtless, would die. Dumping a baby is awful, but it happens – if the baby box saves a few of these innocent lives, it must be a good thing.

You Decide

  1. Why might a mother feel she had no choice but to abandon her child?
  2. If more babies are abandoned because baby boxes are available, but fewer die, is that a good or a bad thing?

Activities

  1. A friend is thinking about abandoning her baby, and approaches you for advice. What other sources of help and support could she find? Discuss the options in groups.
  2. A charity has suggested that your council should install a baby box in the local area. Stage a meeting to debate the proposal. Where should the baby box be installed? How would it be advertised?

Some People Say...

“No mother should ever give up her baby.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the situation around this in the UK?
There is no real alternative to the baby box: in the UK, it is illegal to secretly abandon a child. Giving a baby up for adoption is a long and carefully-monitored process: social services provide counselling for a mother, and look for ways the child can be cared for by other members of its family. If the parent definitely wants to give up the child, they do not sign anything for six week after it is born, so they have plenty of time to think over the decision.
Are there any similar arrangements elsewhere?
In America there are no baby boxes or hatches, but each state has its own ‘safe-haven’ laws that allow babies to be given up to authorities – like medical services and police officers – completely anonymously, no questions asked.

Word Watch

Prague
The capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague, has a rich cultural history and remains one of Eastern Europe’s leading cities. In the Czech Republic, 62 babies have been picked up from baby boxes.
Wedlock
Today, most Western cultures regard having a baby outside of marriage – or wedlock – as acceptable. In the past the situation was different: having sex outside of marriage was completely unacceptable, and if a baby resulted – as it inevitably sometimes did – it was often necessary to marry quickly or give the baby up to a children’s home.
Neonatal
The medical term neonatal refers to first few months after birth – around three months by most counts. It literally means ‘newborn’, and is a period when good medical care – for both the mother and baby – is essential.

Subjects

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