Once or twice a year in the Netherlands a baby is found abandoned, for instance on the doorstep of a police station or hospital. In the majority of these cases the authorities are able to locate the mother shortly afterwards. Less is known about the number of babies killed shortly after birth by their mother. A notorious example is the case of S.H. whose four babies were found dead in her house in 2010. Shocking incidents such as these have led to discussion concerning the question whether these babies would have been alive today if it had been possible for the mother to leave her baby anonymously at a safe place. This discussion has been rekindled following the news that a private initiative aims to open a ‘baby box’ in Dordrecht in the spring of 2013. A baby box can be described as a safe place where a mother can anonymously leave her baby if she feels incapable of raising the child herself. This incapability may be due to problems with the mother’s mental health or to the fact that she needs to hide the pregnancy and birth, for instance because the pregnancy is the result of incest, sexual abuse or illicit sex.
The assumption behind this private initiative is that a baby box would save the lives of babies that may otherwise be in danger of abandonment or infanticide. Mothers would no longer abandon or even kill unwanted babies, but instead leave them safely in the baby box. The discussion has centred on the validity of this assumption and other possible drawbacks to this initiative. What makes this discussion complex and difficult is the intensely emotional subject matter: dead or abandoned babies. Whilst the argument that every life saved by a baby box makes its existence worthwhile is compelling, alternatives may be available to ensure that as many babies and mothers remain as safe as possible without the drawbacks involved.
What are the drawbacks of a baby box? First of all, the children left in such a box will have no information with respect to their biological parents, unless their mother is found or makes herself known. Moreover, the mother herself will not receive counselling if she remains anonymous, which may contribute to the panic and pain she is already experiencing due to the unwanted/unplanned pregnancy and birth. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the mothers this initiative aims to reach, will ultimately bring their baby to the baby box. It may inspire others, such as family members, to bring an unwanted child to the baby box, possibly against the mother’s will. Another point that has been raised is that the opening of a baby box may lead to an increase in abandoned babies.
Baby boxes have been opened in recent years in a number of countries across Europe. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed grave concern about this trend, as the anonymous abandonment of children violates key parts of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is no scientific evidence that creating a safe place to abandon babies reduces the risk of infanticide or that the number of babies abandoned in other places will decrease.
However, the fact that babies are abandoned or killed shortly after birth, means that these troubled women and their (unborn) babies do not always receive the care and attention they require. The initiative to open a baby box in Dordrecht may be a signal that we need to look closely at the gaps in the system of care surrounding the birth of children in the Netherlands that leads to a group of severely troubled mothers and their children being left out in the cold.
For a more elaborate discussion of the arguments involved in the baby box debate (in Dutch) see the article by M. De Jong-De Kruijf and M. Vonk in the February 2013 issue of Ars Aequi.