UN condemns 'baby boxes' across Europe
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is pushing to abolish baby 'boxes' where mothers can legally abandon unwanted babies. Social workers argue otherwise.
Prague, Czech Republic
In numerous European countries, baby hatches or "boxes" allow mothers to safely and anonymously abandon unwanted newborns. But now, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is pushing to eliminate the boxes across the Continent, igniting a controversy over a measure many see as potentially saving babies' lives.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Advocates say the boxes prevent infanticide, abortion, and abandonment. But the UNCRC – which lacks enforcement authority – argues differently. It would prefer countries to provide better resources to women before a pregnancy crisis occurs: family planning education, easily accessible contraception, and social assistance, all of which, it argues, should obviate the need for mothers to resort to such a drastic solution as abandonment.
"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.”
It is also not realistic to assume that mothers who are mentally unstable will have the presence of mind to bring their baby to a baby box, she adds.
Measure of last resort
Social workers often disagree. Edite Kaņepaja-Vanaga, co-manager of Latvia's baby box program, thinks that it is a "solution to a problem for which another alternative has not yet been found." It is an option of last resort, she says, when no information on where to find psychological and practical support can prevent parents from leaving their baby. "Even in front of the baby box door, parents are asked to think again – are you really ready to abandon your own baby?”
When Ms. Kanepaja-Vanaga started researching baby boxes in Latvia in 2006, nine abandoned babies were found dead that year. Since the country opened its first baby box in 2009, the number was reduced to four. Another 17 babies were saved from the boxes, out of which 12 have been officially adopted and the others are all in the process of finding a new home. Two mothers showed interest in having their babies returned, but they have not yet taken any action to move the process forward.