In Hamburg, a warm, safe spot for abandoned babies

In response to high-profile deaths, a German group this week opens an anonymous drop-off point for newborns.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Hamburg, in northern Germany, is one of the country's richest cities. So it came as a shock last year, when on two separate occasions unwanted babies were found dead in municipal waste.

The incidents struck a particular chord at the nonprofit organization SterniPark, which runs five nursery schools in Hamburg. "Several of the people who work here - most of whom are mothers themselves - said that we simply have to do something," says Kathrin Herbst of SterniPark. "Then we thought about what we could do."

In response, the organization launched Project Findelbaby (Project Foundling). In addition to establishing a toll-free hotline, this week the group is opening what the German media dubbed a "baby flap" to take in unwanted newborns.

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Located in a poor neighborhood of the city, the creative - if not extreme - solution resembles a large mail slot or video drop-off. Behind the opening lies a heated crib with sensors that alert volunteers by cellphone. A mother will have eight weeks to change her mind and reclaim an infant before it is put up for adoption.

While there are at least two church-run locations in Germany where unwanted children can be given up, "Project Foundling" is unique because it offers complete anonymity. Women also could not be charged with abandonment, as they are placing their infant in safe care.

In the US, lawmakers in Delaware, where a construction worker last week found the body of an infant on the floor of a portable toilet, are considering legislation to allow parents to leave babies at hospital emergency rooms without facing abandonment charges. Several other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota, and Texas, are considering or have adopted similar laws. Yet as in Germany, efforts to put an end to an uncommon but tragic practice are still piecemeal.

German women have legal access to abortion until twelve weeks into a pregnancy, but must show proof of counseling on their decision. According to the Federal Office of Statistics, there are some 130,000 abortions in Germany annually. But the few high-profile cases show the shame and desperation that can be associated with an unwanted pregnancy, or the stress of coping with a newborn, can still drive some women to a desperate act.

Germany's Family Minister Christine Bergmann recently welcomed the "baby drop" initiative, saying such projects should be started in other large cities.

Abandoned infants are not a new problem. Charitable organizations around the world have taken in foundlings for centuries. In the early-18th century, a Dutch businessman living in Hamburg established a sort of baby drop-off at an orphanage. Within five years it had to close because it had become so popular.

Some critics of the "baby flap" argue that the modern-day project could have a similar effect by lowering the threshold for abandoning a child. Barbara Schwemmer, spokeswoman of the Catholic charity Caritas in Berlin, says that the anonymity of the "baby flap" could prevent women from getting needed counseling and personal contact.

Ms. Herbst of SterniPark rejects this line, saying that the 40 children abandoned in Germany in 1999 are proof that the country's wide range of counseling opportunities are not always enough. She adds that the few women who would consider giving up their newborns would not be influenced by the existence of the "baby flap." "For these extreme cases, there has to be the possibility to give up the child quickly and without speaking," she says. "Otherwise they will put their babies in the garbage."

Ms. Schwemmer concedes that in the end a warm, safe drop-off point is better than leaving a child in the cold - but that there has to be enough publicity so that women who would consider such an option know that they are not alone. "Maybe nowadays we are trying harder to see how we can help these women, while in the past they were only condemned," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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