Humane rather than ideal solutions are needed to save unwanted infants
EARLY this week, the United Nations's Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) courted controversy in expressing concern over the spread of baby hatches in Europe. The practice of secretly abandoning a baby "contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents". Dr Maria Herczog of the UNCRC said hatches indirectly encouraged women to hide their pregnancy, give birth under uncontrolled circumstances, and lose the possibility to connect with their child again. Baby hatches were an "easy and comfortable 'solution' for the state", which ought to be replaced by comprehensive state policies, like provisions for family planning, counselling for women, and support for unplanned pregnancies.
Although in existence for hundreds of years, baby hatches had almost disappeared from Europe in the last century. However, over the last decade, almost 200 have been installed in Europe, and since 2000, these hatches have embraced 400 abandoned babies. The revival has been spearheaded by faith groups and pro-life organisations as an alternative to unsafe abandonment, infanticide and abortion. Baby hatches provide anonymity and immunity from abandonment laws. However, some countries approach the matter in other ways. In Holland and France, women have the right to remain anonymous to their babies after giving birth. American "safe haven" laws allow unharmed infants to be handed over to proper authorities, with no questions asked. The German government is considering introducing a "legal framework for confidential births".
Although the UNCRC's opinion is aimed at the ideals of childhood and parenting, its statement of concern ignores the realities on the ground and can have grave consequences on fledgling baby hatch efforts in conservative countries. The UNCRC's disapproval and solution presupposes an open-minded society; where sexual reproductive health education is an accepted norm, where premarital sex is not a crime against society, where the 'criminals' are not subjected to religious prosecution and persecution, and where registration laws do not formally illegitimise babies born to unwed parents. In such conservative societies, abandoning a baby is a choice between saving the parent's life or the child's life. Putting it in a baby hatch is a choice to save both sides. The Edhi Foundation, Pakistan's largest welfare organisation, has saved more than 20,000 abandoned babies with its 300 jhoola (cradles). Sure, baby hatches are not meant to be a long-term solution. But the life of an abandoned baby today cannot wait for society to become enlightened and humane sometime in the future.