Abandoning Newborns Do Baby Hatches Really Save Lives?


By , Catalina Schröder and

Part 2: 'No Questions, No Witnesses, No Police'

Counselors who take this point of view have to deal with the sometimes shrill advocacy of the baby hatch lobby. The Sternipark organization in Hamburg, for example, promotes its counseling services and baby hatches under the motto, "No questions, no witnesses, no police."

Germany's tabloids also do their bit. Bild, for example, runs baby pictures and headlines such as "Sweet little Ida found lying in the baby hatch," about children reportedly left at Sternipark's facilities. The organization, one article reads, is "looking for loving adoptive parents" if the birth mothers don't get in touch. The article is followed by a toll-free number.

Even baby hatch proponents such as Gisela Buhl in Fulda are uncomfortable with such aggressive marketing. "We wouldn't do that," she says.

Still, Sternipark has become something of a market leader within the German baby hatch scene. Sternipark opened the country's first baby hatch in April 2000, on Goethestrasse in Hamburg, and now operates three of them. Representatives of the organization talk of 41 "rescued" children. "Baby hatches have saved the lives of a considerable number of newborns," Sternipark quotes actress Gesine Cukrowski, 43, as saying. Dana Schweiger, well known in Germany as the wife of actor Til Schweiger, has been active on behalf of Sternipark for years.

Little Evidence

The central argument put forth by those who run baby hatches is that the facilities can save lives, yet there's little evidence to back up that claim. Criminologists say the number of babies killed or abandoned by their mothers or fathers shortly after birth has not decreased since the introduction of baby hatches.

In fact, another DJI study conducted together with the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony concludes that the baby hatch service doesn't even reach those women who kill their newborns.

Researchers examined 199 cases, between 1997 and 2006, of infanticide shortly after birth. They concluded that a woman who wishes to make use of a baby hatch must first know the location of the hatch and figure out how to get there. To do that, they must already have accepted the fact that they are pregnant. But "almost none of the women who committed infanticide" were capable of such planned-out action, the study concluded. Nearly all of them had repressed the knowledge of their pregnancies, and were taken by surprise when they went into labor. They panicked, and in the heat of the moment killed their children or simply abandoned them.

Who, then, makes use of the baby hatches? According to the DJI, 278 children were found in such hatches in Germany between 2000 and May 2010. However, not all the organizations that operate baby hatches responded to the DJI's inquiries, and many government-run child welfare agencies chose not to release their data. As a result, no one in Germany knows precisely how many children have been placed in baby hatches in the past 12 years, or what became of them afterward.

Creating a Demand

A number of child welfare agencies surveyed by the DJI expressed a suspicion that the aggressive degree of media coverage and advertising for baby hatches actually "creates a demand that wouldn't exist if the service were not offered." In other words, are the operators of baby hatches actually responsible for giving parents the idea of giving up their babies anonymously?

That's the position held by one of the harshest critics of baby hatches, Hanover-based criminologist and adoption expert Christine Swientek. "It is impossible to supervise baby hatches," she says. "And I don't just mean in terms of the users, I mean in terms of the operators as well." Swientek fears, for example, that fathers or other family members might leave difficult children in a baby hatch without the knowledge or agreement of the mother.

A DJI study titled "Anonymous Birth and Baby Hatches in Germany" also criticizes the practices of certain baby hatch operators. Some organizations "lacked sufficiently trained staff," for example. And in several cases, baby hatches were used for other than the intended purpose, for example for disabled or older children, or babies that had already died.

Haunting Story

One case that has given even the most avid supporters pause occurred in the city of Lübeck in early November 2011. Friederike Garbe, 67, a former dentist's assistant, has operated a baby hatch here out of a private home in the city's old town for 12 years. Shortly after noon one Sunday, the hatch, which measures approximately 80 by 60 centimeters (30 by 25 inches), was opened and someone placed not one but two children inside, a boy already 15 months old, and his four-month-old brother.

Garbe was just coming home from a church service at the city's cathedral and had started to open the front door when she heard the babies crying. The older boy could already stand and say "Mama." Garbe called the police and the child welfare agency.

A house key found in a baby carriage left outside the hatch set investigators on the trail of the mother, a 23-year-old woman from the state of Brandenburg who had lived with her children at an assisted living facility about 340 kilometers (210 miles) away from Lübeck. The boys have since been placed with foster parents, but their mother still hasn't been found.

"It's such a mysterious story, and it still haunts me," Garbe says. Nonetheless, she still considers baby hatches to be indispensable. Not because she believes mothers would kill their children otherwise, she says, but because she fears they might leave them somewhere else more dangerous.

On the Fence

Yet experts contest this argument as well. The German Ethics Council issued its own criticism back in 2009, saying that pregnant women have many options for receiving anonymous counseling and assistance, but the real problem is that these services aren't well enough known. The council maintains that baby hatches deprive children of their right to know their parents' identity, and recommends that baby hatches be "given up."

Caren Marks, a member of the Bundestag for the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the party's spokesperson on family policy issues, makes a similar argument. "I believe it is wrong to tolerate baby hatches and remain in this legal gray area," Marks says. "Instead, we must expand existing assistance and counseling services."

"We shouldn't establish any more baby hatches, but we should allow those that already exist to remain," argues Miriam Gruss, a family policy expert with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). Her counterparts Dorothee Bär of the CSU and Katja Dörner of the Green Party agree, but call for stricter controls.

The word from the Family Ministry is that the future of baby hatches will only be decided after the planned law on anonymous birth has been put to the test -- in other words, in a few years' time.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


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