The United Nations is increasingly concerned at the spread in Europe of “baby boxes” where infants can be secretly abandoned by parents, warning that the practice “contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents”, the Guardian has learned.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which reports on how well governments respect and protect children’s human rights, is alarmed at the prevalence of the hatches – usually outside a hospital – which allow unwanted newborns to be left in boxes with an alarm or bell to summon a carer.
The committee, a group of 18 international human rights experts based in Geneva, says that while “foundling wheels” and baby hatches had disappeared from Europe in the last century, almost 200 have been installed across the continent in the past decade in nations as diverse as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic and Latvia. Since 2000, more than 400 children have been abandoned in the hatches, with faith groups and right-wing politicians spearheading the revival in the controversial practice.
Their proponents draw on the language of the pro-life lobby and claim the baby boxes “protect a child’s right to life” and have saved “hundreds of newborns”. There are differing opinions on this key social issue across Europe. In France and Holland women have the right to remain anonymous to their babies after giving birth, while in the UK it remains a crime to secretly abandon a child.
However UN officials argue that baby hatches violate key parts of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which says children must be able to identify their parents and even if separated from them the state has a “duty to respect the child’s right to maintain personal relations with his or her parent”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Maria Herczog, a member of the UNCRC committee, said that the arguments from critics were a throwback to the past. “Just like medieval times in many countries we see people claiming that baby boxes prevent infanticide … there is no evidence for this.”
Herczog, a prominent child psychologist from Hungary, says baby boxes should be replaced by better state provision of family planning, counselling for women and support for unplanned pregnancies.
She likened the pro-baby box movements in Europe to the religious right in the US. “Very similar to the United States where we have the spread of the Safe Haven programme with baby boxes in 50 states since 1999. Now we have MEPs arguing for baby boxes and they just reject the convention.”
The committee wrote last year to the government in the Czech republic, which has seen 44 baby boxes set up since 2005, asking it “undertake all measures necessary to end the programme as soon as possible”. The ensuing row spilt over borders with two dozen right-wing MEPs, including the current president of Hungary, writing to complain that baby boxes “offer(ed) a solution for women who unfortunately keep their pregnancy a secret and fear to approach official instructions”.