After a man spoke out about his experience being dropped off in a baby hatch, a new debate has been sparked over the programme that supporters say saves innocent lives but opponents argue encourages child abandonment.
In the southern Japanese city of Kumamoto, infants and young children can be anonymously dropped off by their parents at the country’s first and only “baby hatch.”
The issue has sparked controversy in the country with critics questioning the practice saying it should not be normalised as it would lead to social problems and also affect the future of children.
Jikei Hospital established the “Baby Hatch” in 2007 to address the alarming rate of child abandonments across the nation, including the case of an infant left in a supermarket toilet.
Parents that cannot give sufficient care to their babies, typically newborns, bring their children to the hatches which are made up of a door or flap on an outside wall that opens onto a bed.
The bed is insulated or heated to keep the infant warm and sensors alert hospital staff when a baby has been placed inside. Some are also designed to prevent being opened again from the outside once a baby has been placed inside.
The hospital argued that by providing a safe place for these children to be left, dangerous abandonments would be prevented and innocent lives would be saved. Children in the hospital’s care are eventually sent to other institutions or foster care.
No abandoned child had publicly spoken about their experience being left in the baby hatch until this year. Koichi Miyatsu, a man who was dropped off in the hatch as a toddler, credited the system for beginning a new chapter of his life.
"I owe what I am today to the baby hatch,” Miyatsu told AFP news agency, adding that he still has the clothes he was wearing when he was left at the hospital as a treasured memory of his childhood.
Miyatsu was among the first children left at the hatch and was shortly after adopted. Now, the 18-year-old works at a local church to provide free meals to children in need.
While his story is one of success, the concept of a baby batch is not without controversy.
Critics say rather than combating child abandonments, the availability of baby hatches induces abandonment of infants and some people may abuse the system for selfish reasons and put babies in medical jeopardy.
“A system that essentially allows parents to renounce their parenthood and anonymously give away their child raises questions of ethics, financial priorities and of what is thought to be the best interests of the child,” writes author Amelie Marmenlind for Metropolis Japan.
Politicians such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a majority of his cabinet ministers resisted against the programme, as Abe said “those fathers and mothers who anonymously give away their child will not have my forgiveness.
The Head Doctor, at Jikei Hospital in Southern Japan, Takeshi Hasuda, on the mission of Japan's lone baby hatch hospital to offer 'last resort' to infant and mothers needing urgent medical care pic.twitter.com/uAAjewJxz8— Asia Democracy Chronicles (@demchronicles) July 25, 2022
Unclear legal basis
The Kounotori no Yurikago system (translated as “White Stork’s Cradle”) was modelled on similar programmes and services found abroad.
Pakistan has the most baby hatches in the world at 300 while Germany has around 100, the Czech Republic has 76 and Poland has 67. Switzerland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal and Slovakia are all reported to have baby hatches too.
The hatches are usually found in hospitals, social centres, or churches, and the legal aspects of each change based on the country it’s found in and are often “grey areas" with no clear legal basis.
The most notable area of controversy is the anonymity behind the birth as baby hatches allow women to bypass the rules of many regions that require them to register when giving birth.
Supporters say baby hatches allow a last resort for desperate women fearing retaliatory measures from their registered births such as deportation or family reactions. They may opt for baby hatches rather than more tragic alternatives such as infanticide.
“We must be pragmatic and not shut our eyes to reality. The abandonment of newborns exists, and if this hatch helps us save even one, it will be worth the effort,” Swiss hospital director Sandro Foiada told Swissinfo.
Switzerland’s growing number of baby hatches raised alarm among critics in 2014 when three baby-hatches were installed in Davos, Olten and Bern over an 18 month period.
Sexual Health Switzerland organisation called on directors of public health institutions to “(re)examine critically the provision of this kind of service”.
“It is of fundamental importance, for the mother herself but also for the baby, to have access to all health services, before, during and after birth,” Mirta Zurini, an independent consultant to the organisation said.
“Basic conditions should be ensured in which she can be cared for and supported from the medical, psychological and social point of view. With a hatch for newborns, this is totally lacking,” added Zurini.
Critics also say anonymous births violate a child’s right to know the identity of his or her biological parents, citing article 7 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that declares that the child shall have “as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents”
While "foundling wheels" (the original baby hatches) had disappeared from Europe in the last century, almost 200 baby hatches have been installed across the continent in the past decade, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) says.
From 2000 to 2012, more than 400 children have been abandoned in hatches, according to the group of 18 international human rights experts based in Geneva.
"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 UNCRC and child psychologist from Hungary told the Guardian.
In addition, critics also say anonymous births neglect fulfilment of the biological parents’ basic obligation to raise their child and the rights of one parent may be ignored if the other, or another relative, surrenders a child without his or her consent.
“Studies in Hungary show that it’s not necessarily mothers who place babies in these boxes — that it’s relatives…step-fathers, fathers,” Nottingham University psychologist Kevin Browne told the BBC.
Other critics echo this sentiment and argue that the baby hatches, although initiated with good intentions, are insufficient in combating child abandonments and protecting vulnerable women.
They advocate for their dismantlement and for more long-term plans to combat the root of the issue such as education to publicise social childcare systems and prevent unwanted pregnancies and the rising cost of childcare.
Instead of baby boxes, Herczog argues that there should be “better state provision of family planning, counselling for women and support for unplanned pregnancies.”
READ MORE: In Syrian province, babies are abandoned on streets, trash bins
Poverty and the cost of childcare
Despite Japan’s record-low birth rates, the number of children who are abandoned is alarmingly high. According to the World Bank, the birth rate was 1.36 births per woman in 2019.
Japan's fertility rate has long been below replacement levels, in other words every year the population of Japan is decreasing.
A majority of Japanese parents said they want to have more children but cited the cost of child care as the leading reason behind their reluctance, according to a survey conducted by the University of Tokyo in 2018.
According to the Japan healthcare info (JHI), hospital delivery alone can cost up to one million yen. So, Jikei Hospital argued that the baby hatch system can help financially unstable families with no other option.
Japan’s baby hatch has been in operation since May 2007 and during this time, 161 babies and toddlers have been left with the hospital.
More than half of the babies left at the hatch were believed to have been born at home without the help of medical professionals and many of their mothers faced poverty, reports Japan Times.
According to a 2012 report, the primary reasons for dropping off a child at Japan’s baby hatch were poverty, objections of parents of expecting mothers or fathers, the couple being unmarried, and a parent’s mental disorder.
VIDEO: When the alarm sounds at Jikei Hospital in southern Japan, nurses race down a staircase.— AFP News Agency (@AFP) July 22, 2022
Their mission: to rescue an infant left in the country's only baby hatch.
For 15 years, the clinic has been the only place in Japan a child can be anonymously and safely abandoned pic.twitter.com/lgLumqdNqj