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Europe argues if baby hatches save newborns or violate a child’s rights?


WARSAW (CNS): On a damp street in Warsaw, Poland, not far from St. Florian’s Cathedral, a tiny mattress lies on display behind a safety-glass window, installed at waist height on a dull gray wall. 

To the left, a door sign reads Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto. Across the teeming thoroughfare a multi-storey hospital gazes down over rutted sidewalks. 

When the Polish capital’s first life window was dedicated in 2006, it was one of dozens newly installed around Europe, as a safe place for unwilling mothers to leave their babies. 

Today, controversy is growing, as the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child charged that the windows violate children’s rights and, last year, called for Europe’s baby hatches to be closed. 

In a radio interview last June, a Hungarian committee member, Maria Herczog, denounced the hatches as a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every major country except the United States of America. 

She called the hatches “medieval” and claimed they contradict Articles 7 and 8 of the convention, which enshrine a child’s rights “to know and be cared for by his or her parents” and “to preserve his or her identity,” and encouraged women to abandon their babies after giving birth in “insecure situations.” 

Agnieszka Homan, spokesperson for Caritas in Poland, countered, “We’re not encouraging mothers to get rid of their children.” She noted, “Although newborns can be legally left in state hospitals, some are still being dumped outside in the cold. These life windows offer a facility where women who don’t want to give birth in (a) hospital can leave them anonymously, without endangering their lives.” 

Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, from Krakow, told the Catholic weekly, Gosc Niedzielny, “A child thrown on a rubbish tip cannot fail to shock our consciences—these life windows are the Church’s answer to this tragedy.”

Historians believe Europe’s first baby hatch, life window or foundling wheel, was opened in Rome under Pope Innocent III in 1198. Most were closed in the 19th century, as state social care expanded. However, they began to reappear at the end of the 20th century, as more babies were abandoned amid economic hardship and social breakdown. 

Most now consist of heated incubators with simple sign-directions, which trigger a bell or buzzer when a baby is deposited inside. 

Newborns, usually left at night, are taken to a hospital and kept nearby for several weeks in case the parents reclaim them. 

In Krakow, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth opened a life window in 2006. When a baby was left there last autumn, they found a card which read: “Casper, I’m sorry. I love you very much– Mum.” 

Sister Jozefina told Gosc Niedzielny, “We were woken by the alarm at night and ran down, and we saw a beautiful boy lying in the window.” She said, “The card really touched us, since we sensed the mother must have really struggled... We wonder what made her give up her own child and we’re supporting such women with our prayers.” When another baby was left on December 31, a note was found which read, “My heart is breaking, but I have to do this–please find him good parents.” 

While abandoning children is illegal in Britain and other countries, 11 of the European Union’s 27 member-states now allow hatches, which are estimated to have received around 500 babies continent-wide in a decade. Germany has about 80 baby hatches, and Austria has 15. 

In a 2011 survey in Switzerland, 87 per cent of respondents said they were “extremely useful or useful,” while more than a quarter thought every hospital should have one. 

That helps explain the strong reactions to the Geneva-based UN committee’s assertions and demands. 

Branding the life windows a “Dickensian relic,” one prominent Polish social commentator, Magdalena Sroda, told the mass-circulation Gazeta Wyborcza daily in December, “Perhaps their closure would force the government to do something about providing sex education, recognising women’s reproductive rights and establishing the rights of children—not just to life, but to a worthy existence.” 

Some Polish experts believe babies have been left by pimps or male relatives without the mother’s consent. They say most have also been well-fed and clothed, putting in doubt claims they would otherwise be dumped on rubbish heaps. 

“Adopted children will one day want to know about their roots, but this is impossible with the life windows,” Monika Redziak, director of Poland’s Catholic Care and Upbringing Centre, told the Catholic information agency, KAI. 

“In this case, nothing can be known about the mother or family, the course of the pregnancy or the child’s potential health problems,” she said. 

Homan thinks the objections are all a misunderstanding and notes that while the UN Convention’s Articles 7 and 8 establish a child’s right to know its origins, she points out, Article 6 enshrines its “inherent right to life” and this has to take priority. 

On January 10, Krakow’s city council adopted a resolution urging the Polish government to ensure they stay open. 

Supporters say the life windows are saving newborns, and Polish Church representatives say they’re counting on the Vatican, which is represented at the UN, to resist attempts to close the hatches. 

“It is a concrete act of mercy, a summons to responsible motherhood and fatherhood, a moving testimony that we can never be indifferent to the drama of mother and child,” Cardinal Dziwisz said.