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.

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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.

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.

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"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.

Cristina Tango, Children’s Rights Assistant for the International Reference Center for the Rights of Children Deprived of their Family (IRC), agrees that baby boxes are a measure of last resort. “The issue is very delicate and controversial; different economic and social grounds may lead mothers to abandon their baby," she says. "These women are, in general, victims of a lack of adequate social networks and state public services. In the absence of such services, these boxes are a plausible solution to ensure the child's survival and guarantee women's rights.”

The Czech Republic is a case in point. There are currently 50 baby boxes scattered across the country, with more to come, recovering 75 babies since 2005.

But the country came under fire in 2011 when the UNCRC issued a report highlighting the country’s alleged violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report said UNCRC was "seriously concerned" about the baby boxes and called on authorities to end the program as soon as possible. Instead, it wanted them to focus on eliminating the causes that lead to child abandonment.

Controversy brings support

Ludek Hess, founder of the program, says that his only goal is "to save babies." The UN's view is not of great concern to him, he says, as it does not have the authority to force countries to drop their baby box programs, and can only issue recommendations.

“I’m not the Czech state, I’m more like a grandfather,” Mr. Hess said. “It [the controversy] has been priceless media – I could never have afforded the advertising and have received a lot of support from people.” As the program is not state-run, the government has refrained from much comment, but the program remains supported by the country's human rights commissioner.

Hess's gray hair and warm nature add to his grandfatherly charm. Happy endings continue to inspire his activism. When a 25-year-old mother managed to conceal her pregnancy from her family and gave birth at home alone in the bathtub, she left the baby in one of his baby boxes. After Hess wrote something about the incident, she got in touch with him. He convinced her to try to get her baby back, which she did.

“She takes good care of the baby and we keep in contact,” Hess says. “It brings me great satisfaction."

In the Czech Republic, five babies have been reunited with their mothers after being left in baby boxes, saving nearly 7 percent of babies who otherwise might have died.

As Ms. Kaņepaja-Vanaga notes, “one can take back a baby from a baby box, but it could not be done if he or she would be left in the woods, or in a trash bin or stairwell.”

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