The Swiss are installing more highly controversial “baby hatches” for safe abandonment

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An actor plays the role of a mother and her unwanted newborn at a ”baby window” in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
An actor plays the role of a mother and her unwanted newborn at a ”baby window” in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
Image: Swiss Aid for Mother and Child

Is providing a dedicated place to drop off unwanted newborns A) a barbaric throwback to the medieval “foundling wheel” common outside of churches and convents or B) a progressive way to save the lives of infants who would otherwise be abandoned in more dangerous places?

The Swiss are debating this after the country opened its eighth “baby window” this week, at a hospital in the city of Sion. These facilities allow mothers to safely and anonymously leave unwanted newborns; the children are kept in foster care for up to a year before being put up for adoption.

Baby windows, also known as baby boxes or baby hatches, in fact exist in many places around the world. They are prevalent especially in places where abortion is taboo, or female children are unwanted, such as Pakistan.

Needless to say, the practice is controversial. Those in favor argue it is the best way to save the lives of unwanted babies. Critics argue it violates a child’s right to know his or her identity, and shuns the medical, psychological, and financial support that mothers and children should have through all aspects of pregnancy and birth.

The first baby hatch in Switzerland was opened in 2001 at a hospital in Einsiedeln, with the support of Swiss Aid for Mother and Child (SAMC), a group that opposes abortion. The other seven hatches have opened since 2012; 16 babies have been left at the facilities, according to SAMC. (The group did not respond when contacted by Quartz.)

The United Nations believes that baby hatches violate children’s rights, specifically that they should be able to identify their parents and maintain contact with them. ”Just like medieval times in many countries we see people claiming that baby boxes prevent infanticide… there is no evidence for this,” Maria Herczog, a member of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child committee, told the Guardian in 2012. That year, the UN said that there were almost 200 baby hatches in operation across Europe, taking in more than 400 children since the year 2000.

Others argue that baby boxes make it easier for people who aren’t mothers to abandon unwanted infants. Kevin Browne, a psychologist at Nottingham University, told the BBC that ”studies in Hungary show that it’s not necessarily mothers who place babies in these boxes—that it’s relatives, pimps, step-fathers, fathers.”

In the United States, “Moses laws” allow parents, or in some cases third parties, to deliver unwanted infants to safe havens—including hospitals and fire departments—where they will be cared for.

In Switzerland, mothers who drop infants at a baby hatch have three to five minutes before an alarm sounds and the baby is collected—enough time for the mother to leave, unseen by staff. Mothers can take a letter from the hatch which details the services available to her, from counseling to medical advice. Biological parents have one year to reclaim the baby before it is put up for adoption.

Sandro Foiada, director of the hospital in Bellinzona, where a baby hatch was opened in 2014, says it is better to operate in the realm of reality. “The abandonment of newborns exists, and if this hatch helps us save even one, it will be worth the effort,” she told Swissinfo.