Earlier this week NSW Police called for policy makers to consider the introduction of baby hatches. The call was in response to two recent high profile tragedies, one involving a baby found abandoned but alive at Quakers Hill and the other of a baby’s body buried at Maroubra beach.
Baby hatches are like a human dropbox that allows a person, usually the parent, to anonymously leave their newborn in a safe place, usually to be put up for adoption. The hatches, sometimes referred to as baby safe havens, have been in operation in many countries for over a decade. The evidence from these countries should give us much pause for thought.
Baby hatches are not proven to save lives. Studies from Germany, where baby hatches have operated since 1999, call into doubt claim about the efficacy of this supposed solution. Several studies have found that the infanticide rate has not declined during that time and the women most in need of the hatches are unlikely to use them.
Another problem is that baby hatches compromise the human rights of the child to know their family. These rights, enshrined in UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child, are recognised in open adoption practices that include some ongoing contact between parents and children. A child placed in a baby hatch is forever denied information about their family of origin with ongoing and traumatic effects for them.
The potential for misuse of baby hatches and baby safe haven laws is another reason to be wary.
Japanese media outlets have reported that a three-year-old was left in a baby hatch the first day the hatch was opened and in another case, an uncle embezzled his nephew’s inheritance before abandoning him in a hatch.
German media report concerns that baby hatches are used to abandon children with disabilities, older children, or babies who had already died.
In 2008, the US State of Nebraska introduced Safe Haven laws intended to allow parents to anonymously relinquish their newborns without risk of prosecution. Within three months, 35 older children aged up to 17 years were abandoned by parents who felt unable to provide care for their kids, many of whom had high support needs. Nebraska legislators had to revise the laws to set an upper age limit on children who could be relinquished.
Baby hatches don’t work because they fail to address the problem of concealed pregnancy, often a key factor in child abandonment and infanticide. Some women deny their pregnancy right up to the birth.
This is often linked to extreme fear of family or community reaction. After months of denial, the mother may be overwhelmed by the reality of the baby. Extreme panic can set in, inhibiting her ability to make a rational decision in her (or her child’s) best interests, sometimes with tragic outcomes.
Because of this, a better solution than baby hatches would be improving support services to vulnerable women and their children. Fewer children would be abandoned or killed if the problem of pregnancy concealment was addressed.
Women who conceal their pregnancy are likely to attend the hospital alone and a national health policy is needed to ensure that all women who do so are provided with support services that include accompanying the woman home and providing intensive assistance in the days and weeks following the birth.
These women may need support in discussing their situation with their families who may be distressed to learn of the pregnancy and the birth. The mother may also require assistance in considering her options for the long-term care of her child. Such support needs to be given without judgement and with compassion for her circumstances.
None of this criticism is to deny that, for some children, baby hatches have contributed to positive outcomes at least in the short-term. Being relinquished to families who are able to provide support may give the children a good start to life.
However, it is important to consider whether these children might have also had great opportunities if their families had the support they needed, let alone the longer-term consequences for the parents and child arising from the permanent severance of all ties between them.
Unlike adoption, babies relinquished to hatches can never be traced to their parents; the emotional cost of this should not be under-estimated.
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