Baby hatches (also called baby boxes) are not an entirely modern concept, as their use can be traced back to medieval times. Their purpose has also largely remained the same: to allow a mother to anonymously leave the child in a safe and protected place, the baby box, when she feels she is not capable of providing for the child. The child’s father or other family members can utilize the baby box as well. Whether the mother is leaving the baby at a local hospital, church, or charity, mothers do so for different reasons, be it to avoid having an abortion or female infanticide (in some countries), or to leave an illegitimate or disfigured child in the care of others. However, the resurgence of the baby box in numerous countries throughout Europe and Asia has spurred a hotly contested debate between the desire of the mother to leave the baby anonymously and the right of the child to discover the identity of his or her parents, a conflict that may never be resolved.
In Germany, there are nearly 100 baby boxes in existence. Generally, the baby is cared for by the providers of the baby box before going through Germany’s legal system for adoption. In some instances, a mother has the opportunity to return to the site where she left her baby and reclaim him or her within a certain time period. After a set time, however, the mother cannot return to reclaim the baby and the adoption will be final. However, the entire operation of baby boxes in Germany is at odds with the country’s laws.
Abandoning a baby is illegal in Germany, and the country’s Constitution provides its citizens with the right to know who their parents are and gives fathers a right to help raise their children. So allowing the continued operation of the baby boxes falls within a legally gray zone, one that strongly nods towards the social policy that is the foundation of its existence. Supporters of the baby boxes view them as a last hope for women who are unable to shoulder the burden of taking care of their baby. Those in opposition believe that baby boxes send the wrong message to society that women can hide their pregnancies and then abandon their babies. For now, Germany appears to be allowing the operation of the baby boxes despite strong criticism against their existence.
In France, the law gives women the right to have an anonymous birth and a right for their identity be kept secret from their child if they so desire. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the law in 2003, stating it does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the operation of baby boxes in France, Germany, and other countries clashes with the right of a child to know or preserve his or her identity, which is guaranteed in Article 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7 also gives a child the right, as far as possible, to know and be cared for by his or her parents. If a country allows a mother to legally leave her child in a baby box, the child will never know the identity of his or her parents let alone be given the opportunity to be cared for by them.
The continuing conflict between the mother’s desire and (in some countries) right to give birth anonymously and the child’s right to know and be cared for by his or her parents is prevalent in not only Europe but other corners of the world as well. Whether or not governments will continue to allow the operation of baby boxes in the midst of a debate with no clear right or wrong answer is yet to be determined.
Laura Brodie is a 2L and a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy