A baby hatch is a place where mothers can bring their babies, usually newborn, and leave them anonymously in a safe place to be found and cared for. This kind of arrangement was common in mediaeval times and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the device was known as a foundling wheel. Foundling wheels were taken out of use in the late 1800s but a modern form, the baby hatch, began to be introduced again from 1952 and since 2000 has come into use in many countries, notably in Germany where there are around 80 hatches and in Pakistan where there are over 300 today.
In German-speaking countries the hatch is known as a Babyklappe (baby hatch or flap) or Babyfenster (baby window); in Italian as Culla per la vita (cradle for life); in Japanese as こうのとりのゆりかご (storks' cradle) or 赤ちゃんポスト (baby post).
The hatches are usually in hospitals or social centres and consist of a door or flap in an outside wall which opens to reveal a soft bed, heated or at least insulated. Sensors in the bed alert carers when a baby has been put in it so that they can come and take care of the child. In Germany, babies are first cared for for eight weeks during which the mother can return and claim her child without any legal repercussions. If this does not happen, after eight weeks the child is put up for adoption.
Baby hatches have existed in one form or another for centuries. The system was quite common in mediaeval times. From 1198 the first foundling wheels (ruota dei trovatelli) were used in Italy; Pope Innocent III decreed that these should be installed in homes for foundlings so that women could leave their child in secret instead of killing them, as this practice was clearly evident in the River Tiber. A foundling wheel was a cylinder set upright in the outside wall of the building, rather like a revolving door. Mothers placed the child in the cylinder, turned it around so that the baby was inside the church, and then rang a bell to let people know what they had done. One example which can still be seen today is in the Santo Spirito hospital at the Vatican City; this wheel was installed in mediaeval times and used until the 19th century.
In Hamburg, Germany, a Dutch merchant set up a wheel (Drehladen) in an orphanage in 1709. It closed after only five years in 1714 as the number of babies left there was too high for the orphanage to cope with financially. Other wheels are known to have existed in Kassel (1764) and Mainz (1811).
In France, foundling wheels (tours d'abandon, abandonment towers) were introduced by Saint Vincent de Paul who built the first foundling home in 1638 in Paris. Foundling wheels were legalised in an imperial decree of 1811-01-19, and at their height there were 251 in France, according to Anne Martin-Fugier, a writer on women's issues. They were in hospitals such as the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés (Hospital for Foundling Children) in Paris. However, the number of children left there rose into the tens of thousands per year, as a result of the desperate economic situation at the time, and in 1863 they were closed down and replaced by "admissions offices" where mothers could give up their child anonymously but also received advice. The tours d'abandon were officially abolished in a law of 1904-06-27. Today in France, women are allowed to give birth anonymously in hospitals (accouchement sous X) and leave their baby there.
In Brazil and Portugal, foundling wheels (roda dos expostos , literally "wheel for exposed ones") were also used after Queen Mary I proclaimed on 1783-05-24 that all towns should have a foundling hospital. One example was the wheel installed at the Santa Casa de Misericordia hospital in São Paulo on 1825-07-02. This was taken out of use on 1949-06-05 , declared incompatible with the modern social system after five years' debate. A Brazilian film on this subject, Roda Dos Expostos, directed by Maria Emília de Azevedo, won an award for "Best Photography" at the Festival de Gramado in 2001.
In Britain and Ireland, foundlings were brought up in orphanages financed by the Poor Tax. There were also homes for foundlings in London and Dublin; the Dublin Foundling Hospital and Workhouse installed a foundling wheel in 1730 as this excerpt from the Minute Book of the Court of Governors of that year shows:
- "Hu (Boulter) Armach, Primate of All-Ireland, being in the chair, ordered that a turning-wheel, or conveniency for taking in children, be provided near the gate of the workhouse; that at any time, by day or by night, a child may be layd in it, to be taken in by the officers of the said house."
The foundling wheel in Dublin was taken out of use in 1826 when the Dublin hospital was closed because of the high death rate of children there.
The first modern baby hatch in Germany was installed in the Altona district of Hamburg on 2000-04-11 after a series of cases in 1999 where children were abandoned and found dead from exposure. It consisted of a warm bed in which the child could be placed from outside the building. After a short delay to allow the person who left the child to leave anonymously, a silent alarm was set off which alerted staff. By the end of 2007, 31 babies had been left in the "Findelbaby" baby hatch in Hamburg.
Reasons for using baby hatches
One reason many babies were abandoned in the past was that they were born out of wedlock
. Today, baby hatches are intended to be used by mothers who are unable to cope with looking after their own child and do not wish to divulge their identity. In some countries, such as Germany, it is not legal for mothers to give birth anonymously in a hospital, and the baby hatch is the only way they can safely and secretly leave their child to be cared for by others. In India and Pakistan, the purpose of baby hatches is mainly to provide an alternative to female foeticide
, which occurs due to the high cost of dowries.
Some legal problems with baby hatches are connected to children's right to know their own identity, as guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
's Article 8. Baby hatches also deprive the father of his right to find out what has happened to his child.
In Austria, the law treats babies found in baby hatches as foundlings
. The local social services
office for children and young people (Jugendwohlfahrt
) takes care of the child for the first six months and then it is given up for adoption. Women do not have the right to give birth anonymously.
In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Social Affairs confirmed in 2006 that baby hatches are legal according to Czech law. In contradiction to this, in March 2006, Colonel Anna Piskova, a police officer, said on Czech television that the police would look for the mothers of the abandoned children. The head of the Czech baby hatch organization Statim, Ludvik Hess
, complained about this statement and was officially supported by the Save the Children
In France, the Vichy
government adopted the Legislative Decree of 2 September 1941 on the Protection of Births allowing children to be born anonymously. This law, somewhat modified, became the modern right to anonymous birth (accouchement sous X
) set down in the French Social Action and Families Code (Art. 222-6). It covers children up to one year of age. In 2003, the European Court of Human Rights
upheld this law ,ruling that it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights
In Germany, the baby hatch system only just borders on the legal; normally a mother who abandons her child is committing a criminal act. However, according to the German social laws, parents are allowed leave their child in the charge of a third party for up to eight weeks, for example if the parents need to go into hospital. After eight weeks, however, the youth welfare
office must be called in.
German law considers babies left in the baby hatch as if they have been left in the charge of a third party. This loophole is extremely controversial as there have been some cases in Germany where the baby hatches have been used to abandon disabled children or babies already three months old. Several attempts have been made to clear up the legal basis for baby hatches and how to treat the children left in them, but as yet the situation is still not clearly regulated.
In Japan, abandoning a baby is normally punished with up to five years in prison. In 2006 officials at Jikei Hospital applied to Kumamoto Prefecture
government, Kumamoto city
and other offices before opening a baby hatch, and were told that it would not count as abandonment, as the baby is under the hospital's protection. However, the Japanese ministry of health, labour and welfare would not comment on the issue, apart from saying that there was no precedent.
In the United Kingdom there are no baby hatches as they are illegal: the law states that any mother who abandons a child less than two years of age is a criminal and can face up to five years' imprisonment. In practice, such prosecutions are extremely rare and would only occur if the circumstances of child abandonment showed actual malice, i.e., appeared deliberately intended to result in the death of the child. Naturally, a mother who wishes to have her new-born baby adopted can easily do so, though only after extensive counseling which is designed to ensure that giving up the baby is her genuine, irrevocable wish.
In the M*A*S*H
episode Yessir, That’s Our Baby
a baby girl, fathered by an American G.I., is abandoned by her Korean mother at the MASH 4077. After the doctors try unsuccessfully to send the infant to the United States, they follow Father Mulcahy
's advice and deposit her at a nearby monastery
via a foundling wheel.
- Austria - In 2005, six towns had them.
- Belgium - The association Moeder voor Moeder ("Mothers for mothers") set up the first babyschuif in the Borgerhout district of Antwerp in 2000. It is known as Moeder Mozes Mandje - "mothers' Moses basket". No babies were left in it in the first three years of its existence.
- Czech Republic - The first baby hatch was set up in July 2005 in Prague by Babybox - Statim. In March 2006, three children had been left there. In December 2007, there were 5 "Babyboxes" in the republic: Prague-Hloubětín, Brno, Olomouc, Kadaň and Zlín, and the next were planned in Pelhřimov, Ústí nad Orlicí, Mladá Boleslav and Sokolov in 2008. From 2005–2007, ten infants were put in babyboxes, seven of them in Prague. Some of them returned to their mother or were inserted with full documentation.
- Germany - Baby hatches have been used again since 2000; in 2005 there were more than 80 baby hatches in towns all across the country.
- Hungary - Around a dozen baby hatches, usually by hospitals. The first opened in 1996 in the Schopf-Merei Agost hospital in Budapest.
- India - In Tamil Nadu state, a baby hatch was set up in 1994 by the then Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa, to prevent female infanticide. This kind of baby is called Thottil Kuzhanthai (cradle baby), raised by the state and entitled to free education.
- Italy - About 8 hatches, set up by the "Movement for Life". In December 2006 a modern hatch was installed at the Policlinico Casilino in Rome and in February 2007 it received its first abandoned child. There are also plans to install one at the Santo Spirito hospital at the Vatican City, the home of one of the original foundling wheels.
- Japan - in 2006 the Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture announced it was setting up a "storks' cradle" to try to reduce the number of abandoned babies and abortions.
- Netherlands - In 2003 plans to open a babyluik in Amsterdam did not go ahead after heavy protest. State Secretary for Health Clémence Ross suggested that baby hatches were illegal.
- Pakistan - The Edhi Foundation has around 300 centres which offer a jhoola service which is said to have saved over 16,000 lives; the jhoola is a white metal hanging cradle with a mattress, where the baby can be left anonymously outside the centre. A bell can be rung, and staff also check the cradle once an hour.
- Philippines - The Hospicio de San Jose in Manila, founded in 1810 and run by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, has a "turning cradle" marked "Abandoned Babies Received Here".
- South Africa - The non-profit organisation "Door Of Hope" set up a "hole in the wall" in August 2000 at the Mission Church in Johannesburg. By June 2004 about thirty babies had been left there.
- Switzerland - One was installed at the Einsiedeln hospital on 2001-05-09.
- United States - Baby hatches as such are not known in the United States; however, 47 states have introduced "safe haven laws" since Texas began on 1999-09-01. These allow parents to legally give up their newborn child (younger than 72 hours) anonymously to certain places known as "safe havens", such as fire stations or hospitals. The laws have different names in different states, e.g. California's Safely Surrendered Baby Law .