PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — Armed with a smile, a compliment, and a quip ready for anyone, Ludvik Hess is someone who probably has always looked and acted like a grandpa. And he is, both literally and figuratively, for Mr. Hess runs a charity for abandoned children and - as of this summer - a "baby box."
The term, coined by Hess, is for an incubatorlike device designed for mothers who want to abandon their babies safely and anonymously at a private clinic in Prague.
The mother rings the bell, deposits the baby, and closes the door, which locks immediately. The bell alerts the nurse's station and sends a page to the doctor and nurse on duty. The foundling is collected within 60 seconds and taken to a maternity hospital for care. Ultimately, the child will be put up for adoption.
Hess, who heads the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation in Prague, is not the first - and he won't be the last - to install such a baby box in Europe.
In April 2000, a similar "baby hatch" was installed in a Hamburg, Germany, hospital after five babies were found in recycling bins in 1999. Two of the infants died, according to Heidi Rosenfeld, a social worker for SterniPark, the Hamburg charity responsible for installing that first baby hatch.
So far, 21 babies have been "deposited" in Hamburg and 70 more boxes have been installed throughout Germany. Now Belgium, Austria, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Hungary have also installed the boxes.
The contraption is not a solution to the abandoned-baby problem, Ms. Rosenfeld says. "It's a last resort," she says in a telephone interview. "When the woman cannot find any other way, it's the last way to help so that the baby can live."
Besides the baby boxes, toll-free crisis numbers are also available. The goal is to encourage the mother to keep her baby, Rosenfeld says. If that fails, the woman is informed of her options before, during, and after birth.
The baby-box concept is a technologically updated answer to a very old problem. A century ago, a hospital in the center of Prague provided a basket for abandoned babies. In Antwerp, Belgium, the basket system was used in convents some 200 years ago.
"I think in this society, [the baby box] is more needed than it used to be," says Katrin Beyer, cofounder of Antwerp-based Moeders voor Moeders (Mothers for Mothers), a charitable group that installed the first and only box in Belgium.
Communities are more insular today, she says. Women who abandon their children are often alone - they haven't told family, friends, or partners of their pregnancies, so they deliver these babies themselves, without any medical supervision, Ms. Beyer says.
The boxes "should be widely accepted, and no one should think of it as an easy way out. There are easier ways than that," she adds.
Critics say the boxes encourage mothers to abandon their children and shirk the responsibility of motherhood. The Czech Health Ministry rejected the idea of the boxes, meaning that they will not appear at state-run hospitals. The ministry contended that the boxes would attract infants with disabilities or the babies of foreigners, resulting in expenses the state should not have to pay.
Hess fought with the ministry for two years before installing the box in a private clinic outside Prague's city center. By that time he had the vocal support of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
Critics overlook the point of the baby box, says Michaela Marksova-Tominova, head of the ministry's Department of Family Policy and Social Work. "It is only to protect these children that are killed by the mothers," Ms. Tominova says. "It can't harm anybody."
A handful of abandoned babies still perish each year in the Czech Republic. Mothers in the countryside who want to give up their babies aren't going to travel three hours to Prague, Hess says. He is determined to put more boxes in place.