The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is pressing for a ban on baby boxes across Europe. The boxes, also known as hatches or incubators, are designated safe havens for newborns, meant to combat infanticide and the unsafe abandonment of infants by mothers in crisis. According to an article in the Jewish World Reporter by Jacy Meyer:
The UNCRC claims baby boxes violate children's right to identify their parents and maintain personal relations with them. The committee has been concerned by the spread of the practice since a recent study showed that nearly 200 hatches have been installed in the past decade in 11 out of 27 EU countries, and that more than 400 babies were abandoned...
"Baby boxes do not operate in the best interest of the child or the mother," argues Maria Herczog, a sociologist and member of the UNCRC. "They encourage women to give birth in unsafe and life-threatening conditions." She says the boxes send the wrong message: "Just leave your baby, these boxes seem to say. I don't think any community could send this message to any vulnerable person."
According to the Associated Press, one or two babies are left in each of these European hatches annually. I have a hard time understanding how these safe havens are actually encouraging infant abandonment, since anyone opting to leave a child in a box is already in desperate straits. However, as Herczog rightly points out, it's illegal in most European countries for a mother to abandon a baby inside a hospital following delivery, a policy which may in fact discourage women from seeking medical care.
In Germany, for example, baby boxes are placed outside hospitals. After the child has been in the warm incubator box for two minutes, an alarm alerts hospital staff that an infant has been left and needs help. The time lapse allows frightened mothers (or fathers) a chance to flee unseen.
Mothers who use the hatches sometimes have a change of heart. The Jewish World Reporter points out that in the Czech Republic, five hatch babies have been reunited with their mothers since the program began in 2005.
Though the United States doesn't have literal baby boxes, forty-nine states and Puerto Rico have safe-haven laws in force, also known as Baby Moses laws, that allow parents to leave infants in safe locations like fire stations, police stations, or hospitals without penalty or risk of criminal prosecution. In fact, the Associated Press recently reported on a 10-year-old boy's reunion with the Texas firefighter who rescued him as an infant. Many states require the person accepting the child into custody to ask for a family and medical history from the relinquishing parent if the parent is present, though the parent isn't required to comply. About 20 states have policies in place that allow parents to regain custody of the child if they have a change of heart, while more than 10 states consider surrender of a child at a designated safe haven to be an irrevokable relinquishment.
Several states in India also have safe haven programs, known as "cradle schemes," designed to attack the widespread problem of female feoticid and infanticide that has left the country with a potentially destabilizing gender imbalance. Despite India's growing economy and increasing interest in adoption among urban couples, female infants are still frequently abandoned and left to die. In the northern city of Amritsar, 7-10 infant girls were discovered in trash bins or mauled to death by street dog EVERY YEAR until a cradle scheme was introduced in 2008. Forty-five infants were left safely in the city's cradles in the program's first three years of operation.
It's hard for me to understand the UNCRC's attack on Europe's baby boxes, given that so many countries, with such varied economies and levels of wealth, have found safe haven programs to be necessary. In a perfect world, no child would be abandoned, and no mother would feel so alone and deprived of resources that she sees no other option for her child. But the world is tragically imperfect. Frankly, the UNCRC's claim that placing a baby in a safe hatch violates the child's rights is ludicrous. Yes, children do have a right to know their parents and have a relationship with them -- but it's also hard to accomplish that if the child has been mauled to death by a dog in the street.
The UNCRC's crusade against baby boxes strikes me as an extension of the anti-adoption sentiment that is rampant in UN offices in Europe, like UNICEF. It's the triumph of ideology and well-intentioned idealism over pragmatism and common sense. As this article in Der Spiegel points out, many women in Europe turning to baby boxes might be able to raise their children successfully if they could connect with a social worker or other caring professional who could help them find child rearing resources and support to address problems like drug addiction or domestic violence that are driving them to anonymously relinquish their babies. There have to be ways to strengthen maternal support and outreach while preserving safe haven options as a last resort to preserve children's lives.