The "baby hatch" is largely hidden from view at the back of a parking lot. From a distance, it looks like no more than a dark hole in the white plastered wall of the clinic.
This facility -- intended as a place where anyone can anonymously give up a baby -- has been in place here in the town of Erbach im Odenwald in the German state of Hesse since mid-March. It is designed so that once the human cargo has been slid through the confines of the slot, the hatch can no longer be opened from outside.
The crib frame that stands behind the hatch is custom made. An alarm system is in place to alert caregivers when a baby has been placed inside the crib, and heat lamps ensure the child's survival. Technically speaking, everything is here and ready for mothers or fathers who might wish to give up a newborn child anonymously.
Yet so far the baby hatch has remained locked shut, and it's unclear whether the facility will ever go into operation. "We have been left totally uncertain," says Christiane Karnovsky, 53, deputy director of the clinic. "We no longer know if it's even legal to run this sort of facility."
No Clear Legal Basis
That's a question that's occupying many people in Germany these days. There are believed to be between 80 and 90 baby hatches in Germany, known here as Babyklappen, but no one knows the exact number. The operation of such facilities raises legal and ethical questions: Does the opportunity to potentially save a child's life take precedence over that child's right to later know his or her family background? What about the father's rights, if a mother gives up a child without his knowledge? Might the very existence of such drop-off points plant the idea in women's minds to get rid of their children in this supposedly simple way?
Those who run the facilities have been operating without a clear legal basis since the first baby hatch opened in Germany 12 years ago. Some specialists in this field have raised concerns that the subsequent handling of these children is just as nontransparent as the legal status of the operations as a whole.
The German Youth Institute (DJI) authored a study recommending that the federal government finally establish a clear legal framework for baby hatches. The Erbach facility halted its project soon after this study became the subject of widespread discussion this spring.
The issue falls under the responsibilities of German Family Minister Kristina Schröder, 34, who has indicated her awareness of the problem. Yes, there is a "gray area" when it comes to baby hatches, Schröder, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), admitted this spring, adding that her ministry was working on a legislative initiative to address the topic. The Family Ministry has been discussing precisely what the rules should be ever since. In an initial version of an internal paper outlining the ministry's position, written in March, Schröder's experts advocated a tough stance. "Tolerating baby hatches means tolerating illegal actions," it read, going on to say that no new such facilities should be permitted, and existing ones tolerated only under strict conditions.
Allowing Anonymous Birth
But Schröder seems to be shying away from confrontation -- especially with Germany's federal states, which disagree amongst themselves on the issue. Organizations that operate baby hatches, including medical clinics, social welfare organizations and private associations, would also cause the minister trouble.
Indeed, the current version of the Family Ministry's position paper, which the minister commented on for the first time last week, has been revised and watered down multiple times, and no longer contains the threat of an outright ban.
The focus of the bill Schröder plans to submit by this fall is a new regulation concerning "anonymous birth." This would allow a pregnant woman to give birth to her child in a hospital, without having to give the authorities her real name. Afterward, she would have the option of releasing her child for adoption.
The mother's personal information would then be kept inside a sealed envelope at a neutral location, for example a counseling center, and made available to the child when he or she turns 16. Psychologists believe it is important that children should be able to contact their birth mothers one day if they want to.
Although Schröder has advocated that no new baby hatches be allowed to open, she has failed to address the question of under what conditions existing facilities should be allowed to continue to operate -- despite the fact that she herself previously called for "clear legal regulations."
Beate Merk, justice minister for the federal state of Bavaria, was quick to criticize Schröder's plan as inadequate. "The option of anonymous birth and baby hatches needs to exist as a last resort as well," insists Merk, a member of the Christian Social Union.
New cases continue to fuel the debate. Just last week, a baby only a few hours old was left in front of a police station in the town of Schöningen in Lower Saxony. Not long before, a newborn baby boy was left in a baby hatch in Reinbek, near Hamburg. In that particular case, the mother has since contacted the facility and asked for her child back.
At the office of the Fulda branch of the Catholic Women's Welfare Service (SKF), which operates under the auspices of social services organization Caritas, Gisela Buhl defends the concept of baby hatches. Buhl, a woman in her mid-fifties who heads the SKF's local branch, describes at length the children and their lives after the baby hatch. She says that over the last 11 years, 13 infants have been found in the heated beds maintained at the three locations the organization runs in the diocese of Fulda. Buhl believes there should be more baby hatches -- at least one in every sizable German city.
On the table in front of her is a "storybook" of pictures showing babies, toddlers and school-aged children with their adoptive parents. "All the children you see here are our baby hatch children," she explains. "I don't know if all of these boys and girls would still be alive, or what would have become of them if it hadn't been for the baby hatches. But I do know that, thanks to the baby hatches, they now lead a good life."
A different opinion can be heard just 70 kilometers (45 miles) away from Fulda, in another SKF office in the city of Giessen. Director Yvonne Fritz, 46, talks about the mothers. She relates harrowing stories of pregnant women whose abusive partners are utterly unwilling to accept a child, and of drug-addicted mothers-to-be who are already unable to cope with their own lives. "You can only help these women if you have the chance to talk with them," Fritz says. And she's certain that if women have access to a baby hatch, you often don't get that chance.
Fritz believes operating baby hatches is misguided, because it provides women with a supposedly simple solution. They can wait until the child is born and then get rid of it quickly: They put the baby in the hatch, close the hatch -- and their problem seems to be gone. "In reality, though, only the child is gone," Fritz explains. "The abusive partner, the drug addiction, the family, all those things are still there." Most of the time, she adds, the woman's troubles are even worse than before. "Because now she also has her own conscience plaguing her over the fact that she gave away her own child."
For women who want to hide their pregnancy at all costs, the SKF counselors in Giessen try to find practical solutions. And they promise that, if all else fails, they will take the newborn into their care and arrange an adoption in which the identity of the birth mother remains protected.
But it's never gone that far, Fritz says. "Sometimes it was close, but we've always managed to work with the women to find another solution." This can include a women's shelter, a mother-and-child shelter, or if necessary a traditional adoption, but kept secret from the woman's family. The essential thing, Fritz says, is that whether anonymous or not, the birth takes place under medical supervision. "Anything else would be irresponsible to both the mother and child," she says.