Photo Gallery: Battening Down the Hatches

Foto: Boris Roessler/ picture alliance / dpa

Abandoning Newborns Do Baby Hatches Really Save Lives?

Germany has over 80 so-called baby hatches, where mothers can anonymously give up their children for adoption. But there is disagreement over whether the facilities help save lives, or if they actually give women the idea of dumping their newborns. Now the government is trying to regulate the legal gray area.
Von Matthias Bartsch, Catalina Schröder und Antje Windmann

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.

Good Lives

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.

'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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